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October 21st 2020

Medical Negligence

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: How a 10-month delay in diagnosis cost young woman the chance of survival

Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

Solicitor, Clinical Negligence

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: How a 10-month delay in diagnosis cost young woman the chance of survival

The devastated family of a young woman who died believing her breast cancer was missed by doctors as they ‘dismissed’ her concerns due to her age have shared her story to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The devastated family of a young woman who died believing her breast cancer was missed by doctors as they ‘dismissed’ her concerns due to her age have shared her story to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Waverlea Alphonse had suspected she may have breast cancer at the age of 25 and went to see her GP immediately after discovering a lump in her left breast, having experienced pains for around a month.

However, when she was referred to Newham Hospital in April 2015 she was told an ultrasound scan had shown a small intra-mammary lymph node at the site of the lump and she was discharged with reassurance that there was nothing sinister.

She was also told she didn’t qualify to be seen at the Clinical Genetics Service, at Great Ormond Street Hospital, despite warning specialists there had been a history of young women having breast cancer in her family.

Five months later, fearing the lump had grown and still experiencing pain, Waverlea went back to her GP and was given painkillers. She was referred back to specialists in February 2016 after returning to her GP once more.

Only then – 10 months after she was first seen – was a 26mm suspicious mass noted on a scan. Further tests revealed she had cancer in both breasts.

Despite having a double mastectomy, lumpectomy and almost total lymph node clearance following chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiotherapy, the cancer returned and she was diagnosed in October 2018 with recurrent breast cancer in both breasts.

The cancer spread and she was then also diagnosed with lung cancer, losing her life last August, aged 29.

Now, to mark Breast Cancer Awareness month, which runs throughout October, her family is sharing her story, and urging young women to ensure they push for thorough tests when they have concerns.

Waverlea’s story is particularly important at a time when leading charity Breast Cancer Now has warned that almost one million women in the UK have missed vital breast screening due to coronavirus and predicted that around 8,600 women who have not had a scan will have undetected breast cancer.

Social media campaign urged women to challenge doctors

Waverlea established her own Instagram account – entitled ‘Cancer Slayer’ – in which she urged young women like herself not to be dismissed by doctors when concerned over their health.

On the account she documented her journey from diagnosis through treatment and being told the cancer was recurring and incurable, aiming to help others who find themselves in the same situation.

She spoke openly about making doctors take their health concerns seriously, going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, trying to stay positive and living ‘normally’ and even reflecting on being told she had days to live.

Before she died, Waverlea also began legal proceedings against Barts Health NHS Trust herself, instructing Hudgell Solicitors. It was this which led to the apology she received just weeks before she died in August 2019.

Her case is now been seen through by her father Lawrence, who is determined to ensure his daughter leaves the legacy she wanted.

“Waverlea died as she did because of delays in diagnosing her cancer and her story is one which needs to be told, particularly in light of the current situation,” he said.

“Waverlea wanted to spread a message to others not to allow their genuine concerns to be dismissed by doctors, and that is something people need to be aware of when doctors are under pressure to clear a backlog of appointments and tests.

“She felt she was dismissed from the very start by the specialists at hospital because of her age. She always said they treated her like she was being paranoid and that there was nothing to worry about, and she felt this attitude of doctors meant they weren’t being thorough enough, and that is why the cancer was missed.

“What message does it send to make a young woman feel that way? Waverlea wasn’t someone who would always be worrying about her health. If she went to the doctor it was only ever because she was truly unwell or she was genuinely concerned over something.

“She started the legal case as she was determined to highlight how she had been let down and see changes made. By the time the apology came through it was clear that cancer had beaten her and that she was losing the battle. She had little time for an apology coming that late, I’m not even sure if she read it in full.

“Hopefully people will take inspiration from her. Hopefully by reading her story any young people who have put off having tests, have found their own tests or treatment delayed, or are unhappy with the thoroughness of their examinations, will shout out louder and demand more.

“Even when Waverlea was facing her own battle, and losing her fight for life, she was thinking about others. That makes me very proud and it is why I want to take the opportunity during Breast Cancer Awareness Month to tell her story.

“She suffered with lymphedema following her initial surgery and this greatly affected her mobility as she had swelling in both left leg and arm.

“Then, the secondary cancer spread to her spine, femur, base of skull as well as lungs, meaning that she ended up in a wheelchair pretty soon after the second diagnosis. Despite how much she was struggling she still wanted to raise awareness, and she wanted to influence others in the future.

“She had a really tough last six months to her life and as a family we had to watch a once vibrant, outgoing happy woman slowly fade away. If we can stop a single family having to go through that then sharing Waverlea’s story will have done good.”

Legal case saw hospital Trust admit ‘below standard’ care had ‘cost chance of survival’

Laura Larkin , a medical negligence claims specialist at Hudgell Solicitors, alleged the technique or reporting of the ultrasound scan carried out on 22nd April 2015 fell below a reasonable standard, and as a result had denied Waverlea the chance of beating the disease.

The Trust accepted that, on the balance of probabilities, the reporting and or execution of the scan fell below a reasonable standard.

Despite the scans being lost since, meaning there could be no proper review, the Trust admitted that an 8-9mm breast cancer would likely have been present at that time, and that there had been a breach of duty of care in failing to perform a biopsy. It admitted these errors had ‘contributed to her loss of chance of survival.’

Mrs Larkin said: “Waverlea was a brave, inspirational and incredible young woman who, although angry about what had happened to her and how she was let down, focused her energies on raising awareness of breast cancer in young people.

“She talked openly on her Instagram account about how she felt dismissed because of her age, and how she kept going back with her concerns as she was determined that somebody was going to listen to her. Unfortunately in her case, that was not enough.

“Sadly, as in many cases of delayed cancer diagnosis, she was not well enough to see the case through to a conclusion. The Trust has now admitted its errors and she received an apology just weeks before she died.

“I am now instructed by Waverlea’s father to see the claim through and recover damages for Waverlea’s estate, but of course nothing can bring his daughter back. She, and her father in seeing it through now, have bravely done so much to try to raise awareness and help others in the most difficult of circumstances.

“We wish both Waverlea and Lawrence had never needed my help, but hopefully, their campaigning will result in better awareness, improved care, and less families suffering such a heartbreaking loss in the future.”

In its letter of apology to Waverlea, Alwen Williams, CBE, Group Chief Executive of Barts Health NHS Trust, wrote, “I would like to offer my full and unreserved apologies for the failings in care that you experienced whilst under our care.

“We recognise that, but for the shortcomings in our processes and the decision-making in this case, there would have been an earlier diagnosis and treatment of the cancer. We do not seek to justify the errors in this case and we are deeply sorry for the outcome.

“I would also like to assure you that the Trust continues to work very hard on improving its patient safety and governance agenda with the aim of ensuring that similar situations are avoided in the future.

“We recognise as a Trust that mistakes were made and acknowledge that the consequences of those mistakes have been devastating for you and your family. I would be very grateful if you please extend my personal apologies to your family.”

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