A cancer diagnosis is never something anyone wants to hear. What’s worse, however, is having cancer but having it go undiagnosed despite several doctors and emergency room visits. This is exactly what happened to Karel Pekarek of Vancouver, Canada.
Karel Pekarek’s Story
In June of 2019, 75-year old Pekarek went to the Vancouver General Hospital with excruciating stomach pain. A few weeks prior to this he had been experiencing discomfort and digestive issues, however, it was this intense worsening of the pain that finally prompted him to head to the emergency room. (1)
After a few blood tests, he left the hospital with a constipation diagnosis and a laxative prescription. Less than a week later, the pain returned. Unable to get an appointment with his family doctor until July, he opted to visit the Royal Columbian Hospital emergency room only to have the same result. (1)
It wasn’t until a return visit to the Vancouver General in July that Pekarek was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in his gallbladder and liver. This was shortly followed by laparoscopic surgery, however, the cancer was too advanced to warrant undergoing radiation or chemotherapy. All of this happened just before a pre-booked trip to New York to witness the birth of Perkarek’s first grandchild. Though he did go to New York, he was unable to attend his granddaughter’s birth and was too weak to ever actually hold her in his arms. He passed away a couple of months later on October 12th. (1)
The problem with emergency rooms
Both the Vancouver General and the Royal Columbian hospitals are two of the busiest emergency rooms in British Columbia. Unfortunately, the problems that they face are all too common amongst emergency rooms across North America.
A study done by the American Hospital Association found that 62% of hospitals feel that they are either at or over capacity. (2) There are two main reasons for this in the United States:
- Emergency medical care is the only specialty that is mandated by law to provide treatment to anyone who requests it, regardless of coverage or ability to pay. (3)
- There is a severe lack of primary care providers or family physicians, forcing people to go to emergency rooms instead. (3)
As a result, emergency rooms are overcrowded, doctors and nurses are stretched far too thin, and the quality of care that patients receive is dramatically affected. The doctors are under pressure to see as many patients as possible as quickly as possible. They must vet out who has a serious condition and who can be sent home sooner to allow bed space for other patients. This is why complex diseases such as cancer can often be missed or passed off as something less threatening.
Misdiagnosis is extremely common
According to studies from the National Coalition on Health Care, 15% to 28% of the time cancer is misdiagnosed at least once before the illness is identified. Knowing that early detection has a huge impact on survival rates, this is extremely alarming.
For Pekarek and his family, they know that even had the cancer been diagnosed at the first hospital visit, it still would have been too late for treatments. His last few months of life, however, could have been spent in much less pain and agony.
Signs and Symptoms of Cancer
There are many signs and symptoms of cancer to watch out for, particularly for those who have a family history of the illness or have high-risk factors such as being overweight or a smoker. While having any number of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer, it is important to be aware of the possibility so that if you do, it will be detected as early as possible.
Signs and symptoms of cancer include (5):
- Persistent cough
- Blood in saliva
- A change in bowel habits
- Blood in the stool or urine
- Anemia (low blood count)
- Lumps in breast or discharge from the breast
- Lumps in the testicles
- A change in urination habits
- Unexplained pain or discomfort
There are many other signs and symptoms that are specific to certain types of cancer, so it is important to know what those are, particularly if you have a family history or other risk factors that pertain to those cancer types.
A change must be made
If Pekarek’s story proves anything, it is that something needs to change in our hospital emergency rooms to allow doctors more time with each patient to lessen the frequency of misdiagnosis. Until then, patients must also be vigilant with persistent issues and always seek out second opinions to ensure nothing has been missed.