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Failure to Diagnose Leukemia

It’s a scary experience to be told that you have leukemia, a potentially life-threatening form of cancer. But it’s even more scary — not to mention frustrating — to learn that your leukemia could have been caught earlier if not for the negligence of one of your health providers. Because a doctor or a lab technician didn’t properly do his or her job, you’ve had to undergo more rigorous treatments and incur significantly higher medical expenses because your disease was more advanced.

If your health provider failed to diagnose your leukemia, or if you’re someone who lost a loved one because of a failure to diagnose leukemia, you may have a claim for medical malpractice.

What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a type of cancer that starts in the bone marrow, which is the spongy stuff in the center of bones that makes red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. When someone has leukemia, their bone marrow makes abnormal white blood cells. These abnormal cells are called leukemia cells. Eventually, there are more leukemia cells than normal blood cells and that inhibits the ability of the blood to perform tasks such as fighting infection and disease, forming blood clots to stem bleeding, and carrying oxygen to all parts of the body.

According to the National Institutes of Health, leukemia is the most common form of blood cancer, and affects adults at a much higher rate than children. Nearly 50,000 new cases of leukemia are diagnosed in the United States each year, and the chance of a leukemia diagnosis is highest for people over age 50.

The four forms of leukemia that are most commonly diagnosed are:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia
  • Acute myeloid leukemia
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia

How is Leukemia Diagnosed?

According to the NIH, symptoms of leukemia may include frequent fevers or infections as the body loses its ability to fight off infections when leukemia cells replace healthy white blood cells in the body. When leukemia cells crowd out red blood cells, patients may develop anemia and feel fatigued. A lack of platelets as the body produces more leukemia cells can lead to easy bruising or bleeding.

Some other symptoms that people with leukemia may experience include headaches, weight loss, joint or bone pain, abdominal swelling or discomfort, and swollen lymph nodes. Because these symptoms may overlap with other illnesses such as flu, a doctor should try to narrow a diagnosis by taking a medical history and performing a physical exam that includes checking for swollen lymph nodes, or swelling in the spleen or liver that may indicate something is wrong.

If a doctor suspects leukemia, a blood test usually is performed to see if the patient has a normal number of red and white blood cells and platelets. A further test may include a bone marrow biopsy to look for abnormal cells that confirm a leukemia diagnosis. If leukemia cells are found in the bone marrow, the doctor may order additional tests to determine whether the leukemia has spread.

How Could My Doctor Miss This?

There are a number of circumstances under which a health provider may fail to diagnose leukemia, and those failures aren’t limited to physicians. A person also may be affected by negligence on the part of lab technicians, radiologists or radiologic technicians, or anyone else involved in the process of examining, testing, or diagnosing the patient.

Common actions that may lead to a failure to diagnose leukemia include:

  • Failure to order tests
  • Failure to correctly interpret test results
  • Flaws in the testing procedures
  • Missing, contaminated, destroyed, or switched lab samples or test results
  • Failure to refer the patient to an appropriate specialist

In any of those circumstances, the health care provider in question may be negligent and you may have a malpractice claim.

Consequences of Failure to Diagnose

The statistical likelihood of being successfully treated for leukemia varies depending upon the type of leukemia diagnosed. The chance of successful treatment is measured using a statistic called the five-year survival rate, which is the percentage of people diagnosed who are in remission after five years. According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, five-year survival rates for the four most common types of leukemia are:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia — 83.1 percent
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia — 58.6 percent
  • Acute myeloid leukemia — 68.8 percent
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia — 24.9 percent

A number of treatments exist for the various forms of leukemia, and standard treatments may include chemotherapy, use of manmade antibodies to kill the leukemia cells, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplantation.

According to the NIH, when a person is diagnosed with acute leukemia, immediate treatment is necessary to stop the production of leukemia cells and prevent the disease from spreading. For chronic forms of leukemia, treatment may not be necessary until the person has symptoms, but can be used to control the progress of the disease and its symptoms.

In either scenario, the failure to diagnose leukemia may be life threatening. Especially with the acute forms, a person’s chances at survival are better the earlier the disease is caught and treatment is given. Acute forms of leukemia may be cured if diagnosed and treated in time. For chronic forms, early diagnosis and treatment may prevent the onset or worsening of symptoms. Chronic leukemia often cannot be cured, but can be managed if it’s diagnosed. Without treatment, the person may become the victim of deadly infections.

Making a Malpractice Claim

When a health provider has taken some action or failed to take some action that led to a failure to diagnose your leukemia, and you were harmed by that failure, Illinois law says you may have a claim for medical malpractice. If your claim is successful, you may be able to receive compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, loss of normal life, and pain and suffering.

An experienced Chicago personal injury lawyer can evaluate the circumstances of your failed diagnosis and discuss what options for compensation might available to you.