An Early Summer Focus On Early Detection

The month of May has been designated Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. With sunbathing season upon us, it’s a good time for people to be reminded of what they probably already know – exposure to the sun’s rays can cause skin cancer, and skin cancer can cause death. “Skin” cancer doesn’t always stay on the skin: it can spread to lymph nodes, lungs, liver, bones and brain.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in their lifetime; it’s the most common form of cancer in the United States. The deadliest form of skin cancer is melanoma, and one person dies from melanoma every hour. Even though melanoma accounts for less than 5 percent of skin cancer cases, it is responsible for 75 percent of skin cancer deaths.

When melanoma is detected early and the patient receives treatment before the disease has spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is approximately 98 percent. But only 62 percent of patients reach the five-year survival mark if the melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes before detection. And when the melanoma has spread to other organs before it is caught, that rate drops to only 16 percent.

This is why early detection is critical. It’s also why medical malpractice lawsuits alleging misdiagnosis or missed diagnosis often result in multimillion-dollar verdicts. If a doctor fails to diagnose skin cancer before it has spread, it can be a fatal error, not just an inconvenient one.

Indiana Physician MalpracticeOverall, almost 40 percent of patients who wind up having to return to their primary care doctor do so because they were initially misdiagnosed, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Whooping cough could be misdiagnosed as a common cold. A heart attack could be misdiagnosed as heartburn. Or melanoma could be misdiagnosed as a common and harmless mole.

Primary care physicians, physician assistants and other generalists are especially prone to mistakes when it comes to skin cancer. A survey conducted by the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery found that, in the year prior to the survey, more than 90 percent of the responding dermatologic surgeons had seen at least one patient who had skin cancer that was initially overlooked or misdiagnosed by a nondermatologist.

Healthcare practitioners aren’t the only ones who can cause cancer treatment to be fatally delayed. When a suspected skin cancer has been excised, the specimen is normally sent to a laboratory for pathologic analysis. Some managed care contracts, however, require the use of large central laboratories or contractors who offer the most favorable rates but provide less than optimal service. The specimens may not be tested by dermatopathologists, highly trained physicians who specialize in diagnosing disorders of the skin under a microscope. Pathologists employed in large laboratory settings may read their slides too quickly in order to meet a rapid turn-around time required by the company’s discounted charges.

The American Cancer Society wants to get the word out about the importance of early detection, and one way for individuals to participate in their own healthcare is to make a visual inspection of their skin, using the ABCDE system to spot suspicious moles. These characteristics are of concern and should be brought to the attention of a qualified dermatologist:

  • A – is for Asymmetry: One half of the mole does not match the other half.
  • B – is for Border irregularity: The edges are ragged, notched or blurred.
  • C – is for Color that varies from one area to another.
  • D – is for Diameter: While melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
  • E – is for Evolving: A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color.

At McNeely Stephenson, we have been successfully litigating personal injury cases – including medical malpractice claims — since 1981. If you or your loved one suffered the pain and expense of metastatic melanoma because a doctor or laboratory misdiagnosed the condition, call Mike Stephenson, Indianapolis medical malpractice attorney, at 1-855-206-2555.