Failure to Diagnose and Treat Skin Cancers


When people think of skin cancers, they do not think of a condition that can be devastating or result in death. However, these cancers include conditions that if not properly and promptly diagnosed and treated can result in death. There are two general categories of skin cancers; melanomas and non-melanomas.

The most common types of non-melanoma skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.  Basal cell cancer is perhaps the most commonly occurring type of skin cancer, and tends to grow more slowly and have a smaller chance of spreading to other
areas of the body.  Basal cell cancers develop from the basal membrane of the skin.  Squamous cell cancer usually develop from the outer layer of the skin.  This type of skin cancer is more likely to grow into the deeper layers of the skin than basal cell cancers and has a greater capacity for spread than the basal cell lesion.

A separate category of skin cancer is the melanoma. Melanomas develop from the pigment making cells of the skin, and can arise in moles found on the skin.  Unlike squamous and basal cell cancers, melanomas have a much greater capacity to spread to other parts of the body and are generally considered far more dangerous because of that tendency.

Each of these skin cancers is, however, curable in the early stages of  the disease.  Early detection is key to a good outcome regardless of the type of skin cancer.  Moles, blemishes, or birthmarks that change in size, shape, or color or a new skin growth that did not appear before should be treated with suspicion and seen by a physician. Diagnosis of skin cancer is made by taking a biopsy of the skin lesion and having it examined under the microscope to see if it contains cancer cells and to identify the type of cancer cells present.

It is the failure to perform a biopsy, the misreading of the pathology specimen or the pathology report, and/or the failure to adequately treat and/or remove the cancer once diagnosed that will most often form the basis of a legal claim.  The failure to inform the patient of the risks of the condition or the failure to take appropriate steps to ensure ongoing surveillance may also form the basis for a claim, under the right circumstances.  Most often  the claim is made  against the dermatologist for his or her failing to perform the necessary work-up; for failing to properly communicate the results of a biopsy; for failing to fully remove a skin cancer; or failing to closely monitor the patient following the detection of a cancer.  Because these cancers have signs that can be visible on the skin, once a law suit is instituted the patient is often blamed for failing to see a  doctor earlier,  or for failing to follow recommendations for skin surveillance or follow up care.  The contemporaneous medical record often serves as the  key to resolving factual disputes about what the physician did or did not do and/or what the patient was or was not told.

It is the person who is bringing the claim who has the burden of proving that the physician departed from accepted standards of medical care, and was medically negligent in the treatment provided.  In most states proving medical negligence  requires analysis and opinion by another medical expert in the same or similar field of practice as the physician involved.  Once medical negligence is established, there must then be proof that the failure to provide proper or timely care resulted in or was a substantial contributing cause of the harm.  Proving that the physician’s conduct or failure to act was a factual cause of the spread of the disease and/or resulted in the harm is a key aspect of proving any claim of medical negligence.

It is important to recognize that every case of a failure to diagnose or treat a skin cancer is different.  Whether or not you have a provable legal case is dependent upon the specific facts.  Each potential case  requires a thorough analysis of what happened and whether that constitutes substandard care, as well as proof that the medical negligence caused significant harm. An evaluation of the facts is best performed by a lawyer experienced in medical malpractice cases, acting in concert with medical experts in the field.

Judy Greenwood and Stephen Ulan practice personal injury law with a concentration in medical malpractice cases in Pennsylvania at the Law Offices of Judy Greenwood, P.C., 1800 JFK Boulevard, Suite 1500A, Philadelphia PA. Their website is