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Doctors Often Fail to Promptly Diagnose, Treat Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers

By Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP

Due to successful public education campaigns over the last two decades, most people are aware of the link between smoking and lung cancer. However, smoking is not the only cause of lung cancer, and the disease often goes undiagnosed or undertreated in people who have never lit a cigarette or puffed a cigar.

Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers Continues to Climb Worldwide

Recent research has found that lung cancer is now the number one killer among all types of cancers worldwide. In the U.S., 17.5 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses are in nonsmokers, and the disease affects more nonsmoking women than nonsmoking men. A study of lung cancer in Southeast Asia found that the majority of women with the disease are nonsmokers.

If lung cancer is counted separately rather than grouped together with all cancers, it would be the sixth most common cause of death in the U.S. and the seventh worldwide. Despite this, the disease continues to go underdiagnosed and undertreated in people who have never smoked.

Diagnosing and Treating Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers: A Different Standard of Care

Unfortunately, the campaign to educate the public and the medical world about the fatal dangers of lung cancer have created a defeatist attitude in many physicians. A 2007 study of nearly 700 doctors found that 34 percent of those surveyed would refer a patient with advanced breast cancer to an oncologist, but only 22 percent of the same doctors would refer a lung cancer patient in the same condition to an oncologist. This discrepancy can lead to inadequate care of lung cancer patients, even though treatment exists to make living with lung cancer possible.

Medical research of lung cancer in nonsmokers has discovered several possible correlations between mutations of certain genes and the presence of the disease. One study conducted in the spring of this year found that nonsmokers were two to six times as likely as former or current smokers to have a gene mutation that is linked to lung cancer. This research may help medical researchers to develop a reliable screening for lung cancer in nonsmokers.

Development of such a screening is vital to promptly diagnosing lung cancer in nonsmoking patients. Doctors are often hesitant to order a CT scan of a nonsmoking patient, though recent research found the scans are effective for heavy smokers, since the risks of radiation from the scan outweigh the risk a nonsmoker may have lung cancer. Better diagnostic tools that could detect the cancer at early stages would help improve the treatment of lung cancer in nonsmoking patients.

Holding Physicians Responsible for Failing to Diagnose Lung Cancer

Those with lung cancer whose conditions have worsened due to a physician’s failure to diagnose or properly treat their disease can hold their doctors responsible. Doctors and other health care providers can be held responsible for negligence in diagnosing and treating patients, including failing to diagnose a patient and provide proper treatment. Failing to diagnose a serious disease like cancer likely leads to worsening of a patient’s condition. Often, the testimony of other medical experts is required to prove that a doctor was negligent and under other circumstances, the patient would have received prompt diagnosis and treatment.

If you or a loved one has late-stage lung cancer that doctors failed to diagnose despite the symptoms, consult an experienced medical malpractice lawyer who can help you understand how to hold the negligent doctor accountable.

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