Tayne Eaton, a 27-year-old mother, has been awarded compensation following a 17 month delay in the diagnosis of her cervical cancer. She began suffering from constant bleeding in 2013 but was refused a smear test by her GPs on the basis that she was too young. Her symptoms worsened following the birth of her son and she was eventually diagnosed with the disease when she took herself to hospital. Ms Eaton consequently has required a hysterectomy and chemotherapy. Speaking out to mark Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, she urged other women to be aware of the symptoms and to seek early medical advice.
Cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer in women under the age of 35. In the UK alone, eight women are diagnosed with the disease every day. If caught early, it is treatable and most women survive. It develops in the cervix, which is the entrance to the womb from the vagina. There are often no symptoms in the early stages, but the most common is unusual vaginal bleeding. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). The extent of treatment required and the chance of survival largely depends on the stage of cancer at diagnosis.
Fortunately the majority of cases are diagnosed at an early stage and this is partly due to the NHS screening programme. Women aged 25-49 are offered screening every three years and those aged 50-64, every five years. By detecting and removing abnormal cells, cervical cancer can be prevented. Since the programme was introduced, the number of cases of cervical cancer has decreased by about 7% each year. Regular screening means any abnormal changes can be spotted early and dealt with.
In addition to the screening programme, since 2000 girls aged 11 to 13 have been offered the HPV vaccine and reported cases have fallen sharply. A recent study has shown that women who are vaccinated do not need to be screened as regularly as those who are not. A team from Queen Mary University of London found that screenings at age 30, 40 and 55 would offer the same benefit as the current 12 screenings. If less screening is required, this would free up resources.
Earlier this month it was reported that a new ultra-sensitive cervical cancer test could double the early diagnosis rate and slash the number of deaths from the disease. Trials of the ZedScan technology found it picked up subtle changes to cells before they became cancerous. The study involved 1,200 women who were referred for further investigation following an abnormal smear. In those considered to be low risk ZedScan identified an additional 50% more cases where potentially pre-cancerous cells were present compared to colposcopy alone.
Despite the new technology and screening, sadly there continue to be missed cases of cervical cancer. The clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches LLP has dealt with many claims of this type, including those where the reported symptoms have been disregarded and not investigated, and those where smear tests have been incorrectly repeated. As illustrated in Ms Eaton’s case, a delay in diagnosis can have devastating consequences for the person affected and their family.
Elise Bevan, a senior associate in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team, who specialises in claims involving a delay in diagnosis of cancer, comments: “With the screening programme and the HPV vaccine, huge progress has been made in the detection and prevention of cervical cancer, but despite this we still see cases involving negligence which have tragic consequences. The most common GP failing is when symptoms of cervical cancer are overlooked. Another issue is a failure to make a referral on the basis that cancer is suspected. We are also asked to deal with missed abnormalities or cancer on smear tests, cases where the smear test has not been taken properly and failures to advise patients of an abnormal result.
“Delays can bring about the need for more aggressive and extensive treatment with an impact on fertility and life expectancy. Being diagnosed with cervical cancer can be very difficult to deal with and discovering that there has been a delay in diagnosis can make the situation more traumatic. If cervical cancer is detected early or in the pre-cancer stage, it is almost always curable. This is why it is so important for doctors to be thorough in their consultations and follow national guidelines for diagnosis, as well as using up to date diagnostic equipment.”