Teenager’s Cancer Misdiagnosed as Eating Disorder, Leading to Dangerously Late Diagnosis

By Blackwater Law

You might think that with modern medicine and the constant advances in cancer research, we are in a better position than ever to diagnose and combat the disease, reducing patient fatalities.

There are still however shocking instances where UK doctors are failing to recognise symptoms of the disease, and whose late diagnoses of cancer are inflicting unnecessary suffering and risk on patients.

In fact, such occurrences are not uncommon, as is illustrated by the case of Jemma Jones. Jemma was not a client of Blackwater Law clinical negligence solicitors but her case, originally reported by the Daily Mail, is an interesting one. Jemma, now 23, is a teaching assistant whose young age and gender lead doctors to delay diagnosis of oesophageal (gullet) cancer, or even some of the preluding conditions for over two years.

As one of the youngest Britons to have ever contracted the condition, Jones began experiencing eating difficulties in February 2010, when she felt severe pain one morning attempting to swallow her breakfast cereal. Fearing a viral infection Jones visited her local GP, who diagnosed acid reflux – despite the fact that Jemma had never suffered with heartburn. Naturally, the course of antacids treatment prescribed to her had no effect, and after a few days Jones returned complaining of continued eating difficulties, and the feeling that something might be blocking her gullet.

It was at this point her doctor began to speculate on the possibility of a condition known as Barrett’s Oesophagus, where the cells at the top the gullet undergo fundamental change as a result of sustained exposure to excess acid. It is well understood in the medical profession that this condition can lead the cells in question to become cancerous, and that close scrutiny should be paid in these cases to avoid the risk of late diagnosis. Common symptoms include chronic burning in the gullet, nausea or difficulty swallowing food, but in some instances it produces no symptoms at all. Historically diagnosis rates for the condition are poor; reasons for this include the lack of symptoms in some victims, but perhaps more worryingly the fact that one of the chief methods of diagnosis is an endoscopy – a procedure many GPs are reluctant to prescribe because it costs the NHS around £200.

Despite concerns surrounding the disease, Jones was sent home with the rather non-committal prognosis of “it might be Barrett’s”, and without an endoscopy to confirm suspicions. What’s more, in a move which now might be considered an example of clinical negligence, her GP elected not to prescribe her proton pump inhibitors (PPIs); drugs used to treat the condition by reducing the amount of acid produced in the stomach lining. As a result, Jones’s pain worsened and eating solid food became almost impossible, forcing her mother to liquidate meals for her, which even remained difficult to consume. In the space of 2 and half months she lost around 5 stone, dropping from an original weight of over 13 stone to just 7.

Despite her protestations, when Jones again returned complaining of dramatic weight loss and an inability to eat, her GP arrived at the conclusion that she was suffering an eating disorder – either anorexia or bulimia – and referred her to group counselling, which she declined. Almost 2 years after her initial symptoms, Jones awoke in the night experiencing breathing difficulties and was rushed to A&E by her mother. After 5 days in hospital undergoing blood, urine and heart testing, Jemma was finally subject to an endoscopy, wherein a consultant identified a large cancerous tumour blocking her oesophagus.

Due to the late diagnosis it was impossible to determine whether she had in fact suffered from Barrett’s beforehand, or if she had contracted cancer via some other means. Cancer of the oesophagus is around 4 times more common in men than in women, and this coupled with the GPs’ reluctance to prescribe endoscopies perhaps explains, but does not excuse this incredibly late diagnosis of cancer. Oesophageal cancer has a survival rate of roughly 13% over the course of 5 years, precisely because of this kind of late diagnosis and instances of clinical negligence. This raises the question of just how many other patients have been subject to delayed diagnosis of cancer in the UK, and may be eligible for clinical negligence compensation for their unnecessary pain and suffering.

Thankfully Miss Jones was one of the lucky ones; undergoing surgery in May 2012 during which doctors removed the tumour and 24 lymph nodes, along with three-quarters of her stomach as a precaution against the cancer spreading. She remains alive and relatively well, once again able to eat solid foods despite a vastly reducing stomach size, and stable at a weight of around 8½ st. Nonetheless she will never regain a full eating capacity and her extensive operations have left her scarred for life; all of which might have been avoided if it were not for the delayed diagnosis of cancer.

Are You Concerned About Delayed Diagnosis of Cancer?

Do elements of Jemma’s story remind you of your own difficulties? If you or a loved one feel you may have suffered / are suffering as a result of clinical negligence relating to the delayed diagnosis of cancer, you can speak to a Blackwater Law Clinical negligence solicitor about the potential prospect of compensation today.

Phone direct on 0800 083 5500, and speak to one of the leading personal injury teams in the UK, as recognised by the Legal 500 – an independent directory of the UK’s leading law firms.