Christine O’Gorman Suffers Misdiagnosis at BreastScreen

Cruel treatment … Cancer sufferer Chrsitine O’Gorman with her partner, Glen Fitzpatrick. Picture: Stephen Cooper Source: The Daily Telegraph

CHRISTINE O’Gorman was lying in bed reading when she scratched an itch in her left breast and felt a lump “as hard as concrete”.

For the 57-year-old single mum, the subsequent diagnosis last year of a cancerous tumour was at odds with every mammogram result she had ever received – and she had been diligently having her breasts screened every two years since 1994.

Like thousands of women aged between 50 and 69, O’Gorman visited a government-funded BreastScreen clinic to have her mammograms. It was convenient, free of charge and she was able to fit a visit in during her lunch hour.

To her immense relief, after every mammogram examination O’Gorman received a letter from BreastScreen stating “there was no visible evidence of breast cancer”.

Shockingly, it now emerges that there was visible evidence. Those reassuring letters from BreastScreen turn out not to be worth the paper they were written on.

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Before any woman undergoes a mammogram at BreastScreen, she is asked to sign a consent form acknowledging there is a “small chance” a cancer may not be detected.

The consent form also advises women should continue to check their own breasts for lumps and see a GP if they have any concerns.

In awarding O’Gorman just under $406,000 in damages yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Clifton Hoeben conceded this news would shock most of the women who rely on the diagnostic advice of BreastScreen.

“I am sure many women who participate in the BreastScreen program believe that, when they receive the pro-forma letter, the presence of cancer has been excluded,” Justice Hoeben said.

“That is clearly not the case.

“The documents which those women sign before undergoing (a mammogram) and the pamphlets which are available make it clear that there are significant qualifications applicable when a ‘no visible evidence of breast cancer’ result is communicated to them.

“I am sure the implications of these qualifications are not appreciated by many women who participate in the BreastScreen Australia program.”

O’Gorman was one such woman.

In August last year, her left breast was removed. But, just before undergoing reconstruction surgery, she found out the devastating news the cancer had spread to her lungs.

This year, a further scan of her head, chest and abdomen revealed a brain tumour. Her doctors now say she will be lucky to live through Christmas.

The full tragedy of O’Gorman’s case is it could all have been avoided if a simple comparison of her 2006 and 2004 scans had been carried out by the radiologists at BreastScreen.

Had comparisons been mandatory, they would have noticed that the mass in her breast had almost doubled in size.

The obvious change in appearance would have prompted an ultrasound, which would have revealed the tumour, Justice Hoeben said.

But while the two radiologists who examined O’Gorman’s scans both believed they would have compared her 2006 mammogram with the earlier one, neither could specifically recall doing so.

When they are examining up to 60 clients’ scans per hour, as they each were, one can see why.

It’s one thing to apply “best practice” standards to corporations when people’s lives aren’t hanging in the balance, but to implement them in an organisation such as BreastScreen is dangerous – as O’Gorman’s case has proved.

In adhering to a National Accreditation Standard, BreastScreen radiologists also seek to re-call no more than 5 per cent of women who attend for second or subsequent scans, the court heard. In justifying this, the State Radiologist for BreastScreen Queensland, Associate Professor Osborne, said: “If we investigated every case that was not absolutely benign we wouldn’t be investigating 5 per cent of the women who come back, we would be investigating 30 to 40 per cent.”

Well, if it saves lives, Professor, why wouldn’t you?

There’s a wonderful woman I know who is succumbing to this insidious disease as I type – it is profoundly disturbing to learn that the BreastScreen service, promoted as a convenient, free alternative for middle-aged women to have their breasts checked regularly, would take such blatant risks in order to comply with “standards”.

The number of pink ribbons sold in Breast Awareness Month and all the fancy PR in the world will make no difference to breast cancer statistics if women queuing up for mammograms are not recalled for further examination when they should be.

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