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How common is cancer misdiagnosis?

Receiving news of cancer is a life-changing event that can cause your world to crumble – just as life-changing is receiving incorrect news, whether it is that you have cancer when you do not (false positive) or that your cancer is in a lower or higher stage than it really is.

Such serious mistakes may seem like a rarity, especially for medical professionals who specialize in diagnosing and treating this disease. However, missed, delayed and wrong diagnoses for cancer are more common than you think.


Numbers vary due to inconsistencies in and lack of reporting, as well as not enough research of misdiagnosis. Estimates range from a 10 to nearly 30 percent rate of error, reports Boston Magazine. Serious and rare conditions, both of which cancer can be, tend to have the highest rates of misdiagnosis because they are more difficult to discern.


As mentioned, one reason for diagnostic errors is the type of medical condition, such as those that mimic common diseases or are very rare. Other causes include the following:

  • Doctors not having enough time, experience, technology or information to make a proper diagnosis
  • Lab workers making mistakes in testing
  • Aggressive testing techniques resulting in too many false positives and overdiagnosis (catching cancer too early)

Even hospital politics can play a role in doctors over-diagnosing diseases to be able to perform and charge for unnecessary treatments.


The consequences of these causes mean too many people receive incorrect news that can prevent them from getting the treatment they need or make them go through treatment they do not need. Both can be dangerous to patient health.

What this fact means for you is that you should always seek a second medical opinion to confirm that the first one is right. It is not an insult to your provider but a safety measure for you. Even if the diagnosis is correct, you may find out more information after speaking to another doctor.