A long article in the New York Times brings home the dangers of women undergoing disfiguring surgery or radiation for breast cancer they never had. The story is a familiar one to malpractice attorneys but not well enough known to the public: The critical job of determining if breast tissue is cancerous or not is sometimes left in the hands of inexperienced pathologists who are prone to error.
The problem is worse with diagnosis of “ductal carcinoma in situ” (DCIS), an early form of cancer that may or may not progress to truly invasive cancer. The criteria for DCIS are sometimes subtle and not all pathologists agree on them.
What can patients do to protect themselves?
As I write in my book, “The Life You Save,” you should never have any kind of cancer surgery without at least one second opinion on the biopsy. You can have a top cancer pathologist review your tissue slides for a cost of at most a few hundred dollars, and it might even be covered by your insurance.
Second, make sure the pathologist who interprets your specimen has enough experience. The College of American Pathologists now says 250 cases a year are the minimum for competence in this field, and it is starting a special certification program for breast cancer pathology.
The Times’ article features Monica Long, a nurse in northern Michigan who had disfiguring breast surgery for DCIS, only to learn later that she never had it. She also learned too late that the pathologist at her hospital had only seen 50 cases a year and was not yet certified in any kind of pathology when he gave the reading on her tissue.
Some women get so scared by the diagnosis of DCIS that they have BOTH breasts removed. As previously reported in this blog, having a healthy breast removed does not improve a woman’s statistical odds of survival. And as many as two out of three cases of DCIS never progress to full-fledged cancer. But such is the power of the “C” word to frighten people into doing anything — even undergoing mutilation unnecessarily — to try to stay alive.
This makes it all the more imperative for the pathology community to develop better criteria for the diagnosis of DCIS, and to improve the certification program so that this scary diagnosis is not made unless it’s truly warranted.
The Times’ “Well” blog has compelling accounts written in by other patients. Click here to browse them.
Reading these stories compels me to make another point: Unless you are financially destitute, I think it’s a bad idea to let insurance coverage drive important medical decisions. If the insurance company won’t pay for getting a second reading on the biopsy, scrape up the dough and get it done yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
Among other second opinion providers, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC, gives second readings at a modest cost.