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Misdiagnosis of Cancer and Psychological Suffering


    A blog about the psychological effects of cancer, particularly when there has been misdiagnosis, and considering what more can be done to support patients.

    By Kerstin Kubiak

I was interested to read recently reports about research carried out by Oxford University and the University of Edinburgh stating that 75% of patients with cancer are not receiving the psychological therapy that they need in addition to physical treatment.

The research suggests that this lack of support for psychological suffering is partly as a result of focussing on treatment for physical symptoms.  Whilst it is somewhat understandable that physical treatment is initially the primary focus, it is reported that treatment for psychological suffering is an unmet need which needs greater attention, as it can often continue long after treatment for physical symptoms has finished.

The research refers to a new nurse led approach which is being trialled specifically for patients with cancer and involves a combination of anti-depressant drugs, problem solving therapy and encouraging patients to be as active as possible.  Of 500 patients studied many reported that they were less anxious, less fatigued and experienced less pain as a result of this approach.

Misdiagnosis of cancer

I was not surprised to read about this research.  As a solicitor acting for patients who have suffered injury due to negligent medical treatment, I frequently act for clients with cancer in cases where there has been a delayed or misdiagnosis of cancer and our clients often report significant ongoing psychological suffering for which they have received little or no specific support.

Patients with cancer may be unable to work for long periods of time and may require extensive care or long periods of time in hospital and away from their family.  Patients often suffer significant financial worries as a result which can then compound psychological suffering.

The psychological effects can be heightened in cases where there has been misdiagnosis of cancer.  Late diagnosis can lead to the patient requiring more aggressive and extensive treatment with worse side effects than they otherwise would have done, and also potentially facing a worse long term prognosis.  In addition to coping with the diagnosis itself, my clients often report feelings of anger and frustration that their condition could and should have been diagnosed earlier and the adverse effects of this on them and their family.  It is therefore common that our clients are suffering from depression or other psychological conditions and this can persist beyond the end of their physical treatment.

When making a medical negligence claim relating to misdiagnosis of cancer, as well as looking at the physical effects of misdiagnosis, we also explore the psychological effects.  We will ensure that our client’s receive compensation for their additional psychological suffering and to obtain psychological therapy where this is recommended to help to alleviate their suffering.  Where possible we will also seek to obtain early interim payments of compensation so that our clients can obtain therapy as early as possible, particularly if they are receiving ongoing physical treatment, and our clients do report receiving positive benefits from this.


It is positive to see that action is already being taken in some areas of the country to seek to improve psychological support for patients – for example, in Worcestershire, cancer patients or patients with experience of cancer are being invited to take part in a survey about the psychological help they received during their treatment.  This is a joint initiative between Macmillan Cancer Support and Warwickshire Partnership NHS Trust to determine how psychological treatment can be improved and to aim to ensure that patients across the region receive the same treatment.

It is hoped that this research will lead to further developments in other areas of the country to ensure all patients receive the psychological support needed in additional to physical treatment, and that this does not continue to be overlooked.

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