Misdiagnosis of Bowel Cancer

A new study by the British Journal of cancer released last week reported that one in five ‘red flag’ symptoms that indicate the presence of bowel cancer have been missed by GPs[1].  The study also found that 16% of patients presenting with emergency bowel cancer symptoms had been to see their GP three times or more previously with similar warning signs but bowel cancer was not suspected.

The study concentrated on data from patients diagnosed in England in 2005 and 2006, particularly focusing on the pattern of events in the five years leading up to the diagnosis of bowel cancer.  Data from 1,606 patients and 200 GP surgeries were analysed[2].

Many of these patients (or their families if the patient has subsequently died) who were misdiagnosed may be entitled to claim compensation.

The potentials signs and symptoms of bowel cancer

Like a majority of cancers, patients have a much higher chance of making a recovery if they are diagnosed sooner rather than later. 

The symptoms of bowel cancer can include[3]:

  • Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
  • A change in bowel habit lasting three weeks or more
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme, unexplained fatigue
  • A pain or lump in your tummy
  • Bloating and nausea

Most people who have these symptoms do not have bowel cancer[4].

The research shows that in England, 35% of colon cancers and 15% of rectal cancers were diagnosed after seeking emergency medical attention. Although many of these patients often did not display obvious symptoms for bowel cancer, making it harder for GPs to diagnose their cancer early, 17.5% of colon cancer patients and 23% of rectal cancer patients did have "red flag" symptoms[5].

This information is distressing news for bowel cancer patients and their loved ones.  When it comes to recovery, much hinges on at which stage the cancer was picked up by doctors.  According to Cancer Research, the one-year relative survival rate for bowel cancer is highest for patients diagnosed at stage I, and lowest for those diagnosed at stage IV.  Data from 2012 shows that 98% of patients diagnosed at stage one survived their disease for at least one year, versus 46% of patients diagnosed at stage four[6].

Bowel Cancer (C18-C20), Percentage Distribution of Cases Diagnosed By Anatomical Site, by Sex, UK, 2010-2012

Bowel cancer incidence throughout the body

(Source: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/bowel-cancer/incidence#heading-Four) 

Can those whose bowel cancer was missed claim for compensation?

GPs and other medical professionals owe a duty of care to their patients to exercise reasonable care and skill.  A claimant must show that whatever the doctor did or neglected to do, fell below the standard of a reasonably competent doctor in that particular field of medicine. The test of whether a doctor breached the duty of care owed to a patient is whether he or she has failed to meet the standard of a reasonable body of other practitioners also skilled in that field.

If it is established that a particular doctor’s diagnosis (or misdiagnosis) did fall below the standard expected of a similarly skilled practitioner and it can be clearly shown that the misdiagnosis caused the claimant damage, then a compensation claim may be successful.

It is important to be aware of the time limits that apply to bringing personal injury claims.  In general, the claimant has three years from the date he or she became aware that medical negligence occurred, in which to make a claim. 

The importance of diagnosing bowel cancer early

If a doctor fails to correctly diagnose cancer, it can rob a person of many years of life.  It is vital to catch bowel cancer in the early stages, before it spreads to other parts of the body such as the liver.  Although bowel cancer symptoms can be difficult to spot, health professionals have a responsibility to ensure more detailed tests are done if a patient is presenting with symptoms over a period of time.

By the time an emergency diagnosis is made, it may be too late.

Could you be entitled to compensation for a misdiagnosis or late diagnosis of bowel cancer?

At IBB Claims, our personal injury team, led by Malcolm Underhill, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you wish to make a claim for undiagnosed bowel cancer or any other medical negligence claim. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at enquiries@ibbclaims.co.uk or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence.


[2] Ibid

[3] https://www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk/about-bowel-cancer/symptoms/

[4] Ibid

[6] http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/bowel-cancer/survival#heading-Three