Until 1988 breast cancer was the commonest cause of cancer deaths among women in the UK. It is now in second place, after lung cancer. However in women who die between 35 and 54 it remains the commonest fatal cancer.

It was in 1988 that the first breast screening programme was set up. Women over 50 were invited for screening mammograms. Currently about 75% of women take up the offer. Some of the screening showed lumps which on testing proved to be benign, but it still led to 14,000 cancers being detected in 2004/5.

Treatment of breast cancer has good success rates when it is detected early. If allowed to grow undetected however the tumour grows and invades surrounding tissue and the chances of successful treatment, usually measured by reference to survival 5 years after diagnosis, are poorer.

The screening programme itself has been controversial. Statisticians argue about the significance of long term studies. Some argue that the process causes women unnecessary anxiety as so many benign lumps are found. Others that even the malignancies found are so slow growing that the treatment is unnecessary and the programme is not cost effective. There is no doubt, however, that many women are thankful that their cancers were picked up early enough for treatment.

Suspicious signs have been missed

The tragedy is when women have been for screening and suspicious signs have been missed. When a woman who has been screened and reassured later develops a breast cancer the earlier films are often taken out and reviewed. In other centres sample films may be checked. In these sometimes tragic cases, it can be seen that the radiologist missed a lump that, even allowing for the wisdom of hindsight, was clearly there to be seen. In Accrington a whole series of such errors has been detected. In other areas, single cases, not infrequently, come to light.

A delay of up to six months may make no provable difference to the outcome or prognosis, though, of course, it causes the patient enormous anxiety. A longer delay than that, however, can mean that the whole breast has to be removed (mastectomy) where earlier only the lump needed to be cut out, and in other cases the spread of the tumour may mean a woman undergoing the miseries of chemotherapy which might have been avoided.

In some cases the delay has led to metastases – secondary cancers in other organs – developing, where the outcome is inevitably fatal. These women have to cope with the knowledge, not just that they face premature death from the disease, but that this could have been avoided but for doctor error.

As experienced compensation solicitors in the clinical negligence field, Thompsons have been successful in these fatal cases – and in other failures of diagnosis and treatment with a wide spectrum of consequences.