Author: Marianne Power

We all trust our GPs to give the correct diagnosis. But doctors CAN get it wrong – with potentially disastrous consequences. These patients prove you should never be too embarrassed to ask for a second opinion.

We all want to believe what doctors tell us, especially when they’re assuring us that nothing is wrong. But sometimes there remains that niggling doubt – something tells you all is not right.

‘Trusting your instinct is important. Doctors do make mistakes and sometimes you know your body better than anyone else,’ says Dr Graham Archard, vice chairman of the Royal College of GPs.

‘I can remember a patient who was convinced he had bowel cancer, but all the tests came back clear. He wanted a second opinion so we referred him to another consultant for more tests, which showed that he did have cancer.

‘I don’t know if the cancer developed between the first and second appointment or if the first consultant missed it, but the patient’s instincts were right. As a GP I don’t take it personally if someone asks for a second opinion. If any doctor does take offence, they are too full of themselves, and it’s time to stop practising.

‘If you are concerned, first talk to your GP, and allow them to explain how they came to their diagnosis. Sometimes this alone can make you feel better.

‘If it doesn’t, ask to see another GP in the practice or to be referred to a specialist. Do not feel anxious about doing this, it is your right on the NHS to have a second opinion – and no good doctor would stand in your way.’

From the post-natal depression that turned out to be cancer, to the childhood bug that
actually a tumour in the brain, here we tell the stories that prove you should always get a second opinion if you’re in doubt.

Fiona Kennon, a patient liaison officer, 35, lives in Poynton, Cheshire, with her husband, Steve, an engineer, and children Duncan, 11, Donald, nine, and Alice, five. Fiona says:

My GP assured me that as a non-drinker and non-smoker the painful ulcerated rash on my tongue couldn’t be mouth cancer.

But having seen my husband battle testicular cancer in his 30s and my mother die of ovarian cancer, I was worried. Three years before, in 1999, I’d been diagnosed with a benign skin condition, Lichen Planus, which caused rashes in my mouth.

Over the years, whenever a new rash would appear I’d managed it with steroid mouthwash, but shortly after my third child was born, it changed – it looked like a white dab of Tip-Ex. The mouthwash no longer helped and it had become uncomfortable when I ate and brushed my teeth.

Still concerned after six weeks, I saw my GP. I broke down when I told her about my fears that this condition had turned to cancer. I know it sounds dramatic, but I was terrified I would not see my three-month-old baby grow up.

She thought I was suffering from post-natal depression and referred me to a counsellor, and a dermatologist to assess my tongue. By the time I saw the counsellor, after a three-month wait on the NHS, the pain in my tongue was worse.

The counsellor, however, thought it was all in my mind. She told me I didn’t have post-natal depression, I was suffering from ‘health anxiety’ and she referred me for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I left feeling confused. Part of me thought ‘Maybe she’s right, maybe this is just in my head’ – but then the other part of me refused to believe it was nothing.

Three weeks later I saw the dermatologist and showed her the small white marks and ulcers on my tongue. By this stage, eating was agony and I had lost more than half a stone. She said it was nothing to worry about, she’d seen a lot of Lichen Planus cases and prescribed a steroid cream – if it didn’t improve in a month, she’d do a biopsy.

Again, I was conflicted. Another doctor was telling me it was nothing and my husband was telling me I was worried unnecessarily. Why, then, was I so paranoid?

As a last-ditch attempt, I made an appointment with my old dentist in Edinburgh. He had diagnosed the original Lichen Planus and knew I wouldn’t make a fuss over nothing.

The minute he saw my mouth, he said my condition had changed considerably and I needed to be seen by an oral surgeon immediately. By that time I’d been waking up with blood on the pillow, but thought I was biting my tongue in my sleep.

He told me to demand a biopsy from my GP. Then, nine weeks later, after biopsies and an MRI scan, I was at Manchester’s Wythenshaw Hospital, having a nine-hour operation to remove half my tongue and several lymph nodes from the left side of my neck.

The biopsy had confirmed a cancerous tumour in my tongue, which had started to spread to my lymph nodes. My worst fears had been confirmed – five months after I first went to my doctor. It turns out the steroid cream that the dermatologist gave me might actually have speeded up the growth of the tumour.

It was a massive operation, but I had complete faith in my surgeon, Mr Manu Patel. It was a few days after the operation before they removed the tracheotomy and I was able to speak. I was expecting my tongue to feel strange, but it didn’t, and after weeks of pureed foods I started to eat solids.

Just four months later, after three weeks of radiotherapy, I was back at work as a language teacher. My speech is 98 per cent the same and you couldn’t tell I’d had half my tongue removed.

It’s now almost five years since I was diagnosed. I never went back to my old GP, even though she did apologise.

My confidence in doctors has certainly been dented. I am paranoid about every ache and pain, but fortunately my history means that I now get checked out fully every few months – and I’m taken seriously. If a time comes when I feel someg is being missed, I’ll insist on a second, third or fourth opinion – whatever it takes.