Ovarian cancer is known as the silent killer because it often goes unnoticed or misdiagnosed. March was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, so much was said and heard about this disease. Doctors are starting to talk in greater depth about it to raise awareness and encourage women to take control of their health.
In the UK more than 7000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year and the disease claims 4000 lives. What is not known is how many women go undiagnosed when their symptoms are mistaken typically for irritable bowel syndrome or period pain. For them, the diagnosis may only be made very late in the course of the disease, when radical surgery can be the only option, or in the worst case scenario, the cancer has taken hold and spread so that treatment is tragically ineffective.
Women need to be more aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, which include swelling in the abdomen, weight gain, bloating, difficulty eating and feeling full very quickly, needing to urinate more frequently or more urgently, and post-menopausal bleeding. Women who have been through the menopause are more at risk, as are those who have a close family relative with ovarian cancer. GPs need to be on the look-out for these symptoms and not rush to dismiss them as irritable bowel syndrome or period pain. An early referral to a gynaecologist allows for a test called an RMI (risk of malignancy index) assessment to be undertaken. This includes a blood test, a pelvic vaginal ultrasound scan and a patient risk assessment, looking at gynaecological medical history and family history. It is a quick and painless procedure, usually only taking approximately five minutes.
Patients with any of the potential symptoms of ovarian cancer should speak to their GP as soon as possible and request a gynaecological referral, particularly if they have a family history of female cancer. An early diagnosis can allow for successful treatment, avoiding the need for extensive surgery including a hysterectomy and potentially a terminal prognosis if it has been left too late to treat the illness. Time is very much of the essence.
While a legal investigation and recovery of damages when ovarian cancer has been misdiagnosed will not change what has happened, it can offer financial reassurance to a woman and her family and compensate her for the injuries she has suffered. In a recent case, a 46-year-old woman received £750,000 following late diagnosis of her ovarian cancer and the fact that she needed an intensive course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She had begun to suffer vaginal bleeding and saw her GP, who referred her for further investigations. An ultrasound scan was carried out a few months later which detected the presence of a benign ovarian mass. However, doctors were of the opinion, erroneously, that this mass was not the cause of her bleeding. The diagnosis of ovarian cancer was not made for a further 12 months and she subsequently required extensive surgery. While her cancer was thankfully treatable, the traumatic nature of the misdiagnosis meant that she was unable to continue in her professional career. She made a large claim for loss of earnings and loss of pension.
In another claim, a widower received £120,000 in damages following the death of his wife due to a failure to diagnose her ovarian cancer. She had undergone a hysterectomy and a course of chemotherapy after an ovarian tumour was diagnosed, but her diagnosis and treatment came too late and she died from the disease. The claim related to the failure to undertake investigations to rule out ovarian cancer, when it was first suspected, leading to a delay in treatment. Her husband received damages to reflect his late wife’s pain and suffering, his own loss (a statutory bereavement award) and his loss of dependency.
Alison Johnson, associate director in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team, says: “We have represented many patients who have experienced a delayed diagnosis of a female cancer and suffered a poorer prognosis as a result. Our specialists have been able to investigate what has happened during their medical care and why. When their diagnosis has tragically come too late for treatment to be an option for them, we have represented their families in securing damages to reflect the pain and suffering endured and the loss of dependency impacting on the rest of the family, including any children.”