'Cancerphobia' lawsuits predominate despite disproportion to actual risk of breast cancer


Lawsuits against radiologists and other physicians based on delays in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment have become prevalent due to misconceptions of how aggressive breast cancer can be and how effective screening mammography really is, according to a new article by Leonard Berlin, MD, of the Rush North Shore Medical Center and Rush Medical College in Chicago, IL. The article appears in the August 2004 issue of the American Journal of Roentgenology.

In the article, Dr. Berlin analyzes recent court cases in which patients successfully sued doctors for misdiagnosis of breast cancer that caused treatment to be delayed by just a few months. According to the article, the allegation of delay in breast cancer diagnosis is the leading cause of malpractice litigation in the U.S., with the average award to a woman whose breast cancer has been delayed for five months or less being $250,000. "Most cancers are slow enough growing that a delay of several months will not affect treatment or prognosis," said Dr. Berlin.

There are other erroneous beliefs surrounding breast cancer and mammography, Dr. Berlin said. For example, a woman's fear of developing breast cancer or of redeveloping breast cancer after having been treated is much greater than the actual risk and the data is inconclusive as to the extent that mammography will find all breast cancers and prevent patient death.

According to the article, to correct these erroneous beliefs and limit "fear of cancer" lawsuits, the medical, legal and lay communities need to be educated on the true limits of mammography as it relates to diagnosing breast cancer. "Overzealousness in the radiology communities oversold mammography and frightened women. Now litigation is coming around to bite us," said Dr. Berlin. "This is not to denigrate mammography at all, just to acknowledge that mammography is not perfect and that the fine print isn't being advertised. We need the fine print," said Dr. Berlin.

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