Sarcoma – where medical negligence and misdiagnosis can occur
‘Red Flag’ Blog Series
What is sarcoma?
Sarcoma is a rare cancer that develops in the bones, muscle and connective tissues. Sarcoma commonly affects the arms, legs and torso in the bones and joint tissues.
About 3,800 new cases of sarcoma are diagnosed each year in the UK which makes up approximately 1% of all cancer diagnoses. The cause of sarcoma is generally unknown in each case, due to the relative rareness of the cancer. In a small number of cases it has occurred following radiotherapy to treat another cancer.
Bone pain is the most common symptom of sarcoma. It can start as a general ache in the affected area, increasing into more serious pain over time. In some cases, sarcoma can be aggressive and develop quickly, and so the pain will also develop quickly. The pain can feel like ‘growing pains’ or arthritis. There may also be some swelling and redness in the area, some loss of movement in a joint or a small lump.
Where can negligence occur?
The symptoms can often be confused with more common and easily explained injuries. As sarcoma is a rare condition and is something that GPs may not ever see, it may be misdiagnosed as simple muscle strain. The majority of complaints about bone or joint pain are bumps and sprains, so this can be the initial diagnosis made by GPs and some other healthcare practitioners. This can lead to referrals to physiotherapists, which leads to a delay in the investigation of the symptoms with a specialist consultant, when sarcoma would most likely be diagnosed.
In my experience of claims for compensation for negligence relating to the diagnosis of sarcoma, this is the most common cause of delay in treatment. With an aggressive sarcoma, this delay can often have a detrimental effect on treatment options. If pain is persistent for more than 3 days and does not improve or resolve with painkillers, then sarcoma should be considered by GPs and referrals to specialists should be made.
Diagnosis is often complicated due to a misdiagnosis of another condition and lack of knowledge of sarcoma. A sarcoma can often also be misdiagnosed as a primary tumour in a limb, rather than sarcoma. Work is being done to train medical professionals to reduce the chance of this occurring, but due to the low number of sarcoma cases in the UK, there is a low level of experience of sarcoma in general oncology.
Diagnosis usually occurs after a scan is taken of the affected area.
Surgical removal of the affected tissue or bone is the most common and successful treatment. This is usually done as well as chemotherapy to ensure it is removed and to reduce the possibility of recurrence. As with all cancers, post-treatment care should ensure regular and comprehensive monitoring of the patient’s condition.
The key to successful sarcoma treatment is the involvement of specialists as soon as possible. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence has set guidelines that a patient’s care should involve a consultant specialist who treats over 100 sarcoma patients a year. In my experience, this usually does happen once a referral is made. It is delay before a referral is made that unfortunately can cause the condition to worsen. GPs and other healthcare professionals need to appreciate the nature of sarcoma and take steps to ensure a diagnosis is made as soon as possible.
I am a Solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp specialising in cancer misdiagnosis claims. If you or a loved one are concerned about the treatment you have received, contact me free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4820 or at HannahTravis@boltburdonkemp.co.uk for specialist legal advice. Alternatively, you can complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Medical Negligence team will contact you. You can find out more about the team here.