Medicolegal Issues

Patient with a breast mass: Why did she pursue litigation?

A delay in diagnosing breast cancer is a leading cause of malpractice claims against gynecologists

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CASE: After routine mammography results, DCIS found

A 49-year-old woman (G2 P2002) with a history of fibrocystic breast disease presented with a left breast mass that she found a month ago on self-examination. The patient faithfully had obtained routine mammograms since age 40. This year, after reporting the mass and with spot films obtained as recommended by the radiologist, a new cluster of microcalcifications was identified on the report: “spot compression” assessment identified a 3-cm mass and noted “s/p breast augmentation.”

The radiologist interpreted the spot films to be benign. His report stated that “15% of breast cancers are not detected by mammogram and breast self-exam is recommended monthly from 40 years of age.”

The gynecologist recommended a 6-month follow up. When the patient complied, the radiologist’s report again noted calcifications believed to be nonmalignant. Six months later, the patient presented with bloody nipple discharge from her left breast with apparent “eczema-like” lesions on the areola. The patient noted that her “left implant felt different.”

The patient’s surgical history included breast augmentation “years ago.” Her family history was negative for breast cancer. Her medications included hormone therapy (conjugated estrogens 0.625 mg with medroxyprogesterone acetate 2.5 mg daily) for vaginal atrophy. Other medical conditions included irritable bowel syndrome (managed with diet), anxiety and mood swings (for which she was taking sertraline), decreased libido, and irregular vaginal bleeding (after the patient refused endometrial sampling, she was switched to oral contraceptives to address the problem). In addition, her hypertension was being treated with hydrochlorothiazide.

At the gynecologist’s suggestion, a dermatology consultation was obtained.

The dermatologist gave a diagnosis of Paget disease with high-grade ductal carcinoma-in-situ (DCIS). The interval from screening mammogram to DCIS diagnosis had been 8 months. The dermatologist referred the patient to a breast surgeon. A discussion ensued between the breast surgeon and the dermatologist concerning the difficulty of making a diagnosis of breast cancer in a woman with breast augmentation.

The patient underwent modified radical mastectomy, and histopathology revealed DCIS with clear margins; lymph nodes were negative.

The patient filed a malpractice suit against the gynecologist related to the delayed breast mass evaluation and management. She remained upset that when she called the gynecologist’s office to convey her concerns regarding the left nipple discharge and implant concerns, “she was blown off.” She felt there was a clear “failure to communicate on critical matters of her health.” She alleged that the gynecologist, not the dermatologist, should have referred her to a breast surgeon.


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