Cancer…Or A Cough? Patients Reveal Their Scariest Misdiagnosis Stories

"I got a third opinion from a surgeon who said I'd broken six different bones...There are too many quacks around here.”

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It isn’t easy to be a doctor. There are literally infinite causes of any cluster of symptoms, and it’s your job to narrow that down to a single diagnosis. Odds are, you’re going to get it wrong every now and then. In fact, the National Academy of Medicine warns that “most people” will have at least one incorrect diagnosis in their lifetimes. More than 20 percent of the patients who visit the Mayo Clinic show up with the wrong diagnosis. The point is, doctors make mistakes. That’s no consolation when a physician tells you to start preparing for the end…and it turns out you’ve just got a cold. These patients of Reddit can tell you all about it. In fact, they will. We’ve edited these stories a bit for grammar, style, and readability. Here are some of the most terrifying tales of misdiagnosis from all of Reddit:  

There’s one diagnosis that we all fear more than any other: cancer.

Of course, a doctor telling you it’s cancer doesn’t necessarily make it so. Here are a few folks who have stared down the “emperor of all maladies” only to find out they’re actually doing pretty alright…at least compared to having cancer.   “Leukemia,” wrote a Reddit user, getting right to the point. “I spent two weeks continuously going to my doctor because I started feeling sick the night I graduated high school. They thought it was mono at first and did countless mono tests. They were all negative.” “Then they told me it might be HIV. Thankfully that test was negative. After two weeks of no luck, my doctor put me in the hospital and said I might have leukemia. I was 18 and just graduated. I spent a lot of time crying.” “Anyway, I was there for a week. They did countless tests and finally diagnosed me with mono. I don’t know why it took so long, but that’s all I had. I still had to go to a cancer center and have tests done every two weeks for six months just to be sure.” That’s awful. Patients themselves aren’t the only ones who suffer, though. Another Reddit user describes what happened when his father got a false cancer diagnosis. “My dad came home and told me, with tears in his eyes, that he had been diagnosed with leukemia,” wrote MacFluffle. “He spent a few months thinking he was going to die before he went to another doctor and they told him it was type 1 diabetes.”

Of course, cancer is just as easy to miss as it is to misdiagnose.

Here are a few Reddit folks whose cancer looked like something else—at least to their doctors. “[The] dermatologist thought the spot on my face was acne and gave me acne medication,” wrote WickedCurious. “One year later the spot is bigger and not going away. Turned out to be basal cell skin cancer.” In a lot of ways, women have it worse than men in the misdiagnosis department. Here’s one example of that dynamic: “My doctor told me I had PMS in response to my repeated visits about severe stomach and back pains, cramping, and of course issues with BMs,” wrote Moos_Mumsy. “[They] told me to take some Midol and to get over myself. Turns out it was colon cancer.” Yikes. But we saved the saddest story for last (in this section…oh, there’s much more to come).  “Not me, my dad,” wrote juanangrybadger. “[He] was misdiagnosed with gallstones. They kept cancelling his operation—three times in total.” “When they finally did open him up they found nothing there. [It] was actually bowel cancer, and by the time they got round to treatment…they found it to be pretty much untreatable. He died that October, a day before my mum’s birthday.”

If you think you have appendicitis, well, you very well might be right.

Every year, 250,000 patients are treated for appendicitis. Something like 7 percent of Americans have the disease at any given time. It’s not rare. Still, doctors often have a hard time diagnosing the condition. Here’s all the anecdotal evidence you’ll ever need: “They said I was constipated,” wrote DialTone657. “My appendix almost bursted. Yes, we’re aware that the past tense of “burst” is “burst.” We were just charmed by “bursted,” so we decided to leave it. That’s what you call editorial privilege. Anyway.      “Mine was that my pediatrician thought my ruptured appendix was the common cold,” wrote a Reddit user who’s since left the site. Doctors have called burst appendixes pretty much everything you can think of. “Mine thought my ruptured appendix was constipation,” wrote Zamochy. “After some x-rays, they sent me to the hospital where one of the doctors there thought I was faking it.” We do mean everything. “My appendix was perforated in two places and I almost died,” wrote gumiho-9th-tail. “[The doctors called it] ‘growing pains.’”

On the other hand, some patients just have weird appendixes.

It’s hard to fault the physician in the following case. ‘“It’s definitely not your appendix,’” wrote Ozyman_Dias, channeling a misguided doctor. “You’re describing pain in the wrong place.’” “One burst appendix and a heap of gangrene later, it was confirmed to me that my appendix lay in a non-standard place in my body.” Then there are those cases where doctors don’t diagnose anything; they just miss what’s right in front of them. “[The] pediatrician couldn’t find anything wrong with me,” wrote dottmatrix. “A day or two later, my appendix ruptured.”

Appendicitis is almost as hard on parents as it is on the patient herself.

Here’s an epic tale that will strike horror into the heart of every parent out there. “When my daughter was in second grade, she became very ill,” wrote JazzyJerome. “[I] made her an appointment for her doctor. [The doctor] examined her [and] told us there was a bad flu bug going around and that’s what she had. [She] gave us some meds and sent us home.” “Later that evening, my daughter wakes up screaming, saying her stomach hurts. [I] give her meds and put a warm compress on her stomach. She falls back to sleep for around 15 minutes and starts screaming again.” “[I] carry her to the bathroom and let her take warm bath. [I] dry her off and lay her back on the couch. She tells me she wants to lay in my bed instead. She starts walking down the hallway and collapsed, screaming in pain again. I try to pick her up and she screams louder.” “When I finally get her to calm down, I call the nurse and explain what’s going on. Her doctor said it was the flu but she’s never reacted to one like this. The nurse informs me to rush her to the emergency room. We get there, still thinking it’s just a bad flu. After an hour of waiting, a doctor finally examines her. They tell us she needs surgery right away.”

“They told us her appendix ruptured.”

“The operation would take 45 minutes or so…she was in there for two hours. Her stool had been leaking in her body, and it was all over the intestines. They had to clean her insides.” “She spent one week in the hospital while nurses were teaching my wife and I how to give her antibiotics through a catheter. We finally took her home, where she spent two more weeks with a nurse coming to our house to clean her catheter.” “[That was] one of the scariest moments of being parent for me.” But we won’t end on a sad note. There’s a happy ending to this terrifying story. “When she was able to go back to school, all her classmates came up to hug her and gave her a huge ‘We Missed You’ card, signed by all her classmates and faculty,” concluded JazzyJerome.

Apparently, infections and illnesses are tough to spot, at least for some general practitioners.

“I had H. pylori, which is bacteria on the gut, which overproduces acid,” wrote Hoyata21. “The stupid doc said I was depressed.” Helicobacter pylori is the main cause of stomach ulcers, and you definitely don’t want it taking over your stomach. Meanwhile, though, another Reddit user had an even worse infection. “[The] lab mistook MRSA for regular staph,” wrote creepyredditloaner. The Reddit user is talking about methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). It’s a form of staph bacteria that’s evolved to resist many of the antibiotics doctors rely on to control infection. So if a lab calls it regular staph, the health care team will blast it with useless medications while it thrives and damages bodily systems…which is exactly what happened in this case.   “I almost lost my leg and kidneys multiple times,” creepyredditloaner continued. “[It] took over a year to heal completely. It’s been a little more than a year since it healed, and I still have ghost sensations of fluids running down my leg.”

Just like infections, diseases of the bowel can escape the notice of the physician on duty.

“I was 18 or 19, [a] freshman in college, and [I] started experiencing this soft pain in my stomach,” wrote another Reddit user. “I didn’t think much of it, but it got worse, so I went to the student clinic. Nothing came of it.” “Things got much much worse. Severe vomiting, stomach pain, fatigue, and a couple other symptoms I don’t really want to mention. Turns out I had Crohn’s but it took about 5 months for a proper diagnosis even after CT scans and such. They just thought I had IBS. Nope, IBD.” That’s “inflammatory bowel syndrome” (IBS) and “inflammatory bowel disease” (IBD), for the record. Neither one is a picnic. Pivoting a bit, here’s a story about a common-enough illness that the doctors managed to misdiagnose as another familiar disease: “I had a doctor tell me I had a mild sinus infection, and it would clear up on it’s own,” wrote natalie_d101. “He told me I was being dramatic.” “Five days later, I black out in the bathroom of a Good Year Tire store. Turns out my mild sinus infection was pneumonia. That was a fun time.”

At least broken bones are pretty easy to spot, right? Ummmmm…

Not to alarm you, but a glance at an X-ray isn’t enough to diagnose a lot of broken bones. Based on the testimony of the Reddit community, doctors miss broken bones all the time. Here are just a few examples: “[The] doctor told me my X-ray was clear and that my foot was fine,” wrote eatsleeplaugh. “[It] turned out they had X-rayed the wrong part of my leg, and by the time they noticed, my heel-bone was shattered completely.” “I had been walking 20-plus miles a day, thinking I was just imagining the pain. My foot was ridiculously swollen but I kept telling myself it was nothing because ‘X-ray was clear,’ and I could push through it with enough willpower. I ended up in a wheelchair for three months and a cast for four months.” Remember that your bone doesn’t have to be strictly “broken” to be terribly injured. This story makes the point: “A super apathetic nurse examined my foot X-rays after I ate s*** skateboarding and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t broken,” wrote pizzapede. “He said he was going to get some bandages and he’d be right back.” “About 10 minutes later, a doctor came around the corner and asked if the nurse talked to me, then informed me that I had actually put so much tension on a ligament or whatever that it peeled part of one of my bones off.” “If you wanna get technical, the nurse wasn’t wrong, but I haven’t been back to that hospital for obvious reasons.”

You’ve probably broken a bone at some point in your life.

Hopefully, you didn’t have an experience like this one: “When I was about 17 I broke my fibula in two places, and the resultant chunk was displaced a fair bit,” wrote Kobe_Wan_Ginobli. “[I] went to the doctor and he pressed up and down that bone real firmly, asking me if it hurt, and I told him it did. Then he told me it was just a bruise and told my dad I just felt pain more than most kids. “Two weeks later, I’m still getting a fair bit of aching pain along with severe pain when going down stairs or kicking the footy or even just putting weight through it the wrong way, and we have to go back and demand an X-ray. As soon I got the results I was sent to an orthopedic surgeon to see if surgery was necessary. Turned out to be borderline, so I opted for crutches instead, though it still pains me if I run long distance.” Or this one: “[The] doctor told my mother and I that my arm was simply hyperextended and that I’d be okay after a few weeks in a sling,” wrote wavinsnail. “A few weeks in a sling later and I couldn’t move my arm without extreme pain. Turns out that my elbow was broken and too far along the healing process to do much else. I spent eight weeks in a sling in sixth grade. That sure made me popular…” Finally, here’s a story that boggles the mind…and the foot. “[I] went in with an obviously broken foot,” wrote ThanatosX23. “There was even a bone sticking through the skin, along with massive bruising and swelling and my foot being bent at a 90-degree angle where there’s no joint.” Okay, we’re convinced. “They X-rayed it, shoved the bone back in, put a Band-aid on, wrapped the ankle in an ace bandage, and tried telling me I had a sprained ankle,” continued ThanatosX23. “[I] got a second opinion. That moron said it was a heel spur. Finally, [I] got a third opinion from an orthopaedic surgeon who immediately said I’d broken six different bones and dislocated my big toe.” “There are too many quacks around here.”

Allergies are famously hard to identify, so it makes sense that doctors make mistakes wherever they pop up.

“My mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was young,” wrote enchantedrosemary. “She was given a few years to live, at most, and told that she would die a painful, terrible death.” “We packed up and moved across the state to be closer to family since my dad was going to be left alone with several small children (I was the oldest at 7) supposedly quite soon. I remember her getting frequent shots, lots of hefty doctor’s bills, her crying all the time, etc. Very traumatic.” “Well, apparently her symptoms didn’t continue to escalate the way they expected, so they ran more tests and found out it was just a food allergy all along. To this day, I’m still super confused about what happened there…” If you’re not too traumatized by that last story, here’s another. “[I] ended up sick most of my childhood/teenage life, throwing up, horrible intestinal problems, cramps, just general illness,” wrote nightlymare. “They did every stomach test they could do and found nothing, so they pushed me onto a shrink thinking I had an eating disorder [or] was mentally depressed and making myself sick.” “Turns out I have severe allergies to animal proteins. The huge glasses of milk and pork chops, meatballs, and other meat/dairy-based items my mother was feeding me were making me ill. Cut the animal products out of my diet and am now 100 percent.” At least there was a happy ending to this story.

Some conditions are rare enough that doctors rarely even think to check for them.

“[I] had a bone cyst in my neck that was eating my spine, which had collapsed on my nerves connected to my arms, giving me the worst pain I’ve ever felt when I so much as moved,” wrote Blue-Rhapsody. “I was told this was because ‘I slept wrong’ and to do lots of stretches and exercise every day, which only made things worse. “On the bright side, now part of my spine is made of metal, and a few years later and many surgeries, I feel almost good as new.” We guess that’s a bright side? Let’s hear another.   “My cholesteatoma was misdiagnosed as a bad ear infection,” wrote pianogod. This one requires a bit of explanation. Cholesteatoma is a noncancerous growth that pops up behind the eardrum. It’s a dangerous condition that can damage hearing and even paralyze muscles in the face. What cholesteatoma is not is a “bad ear infection.” Here’s another scary one: “I have problems with low blood sugar and asked my new doctor to refer me to a nutritionist,” wrote Meelissa123. “Instead, she diagnosed me as depressed and tried to give me drugs. F that.” Our sentiments exactly. Moving right along: “I had a rash from a medication reaction, and [the doctor] told me it was bedbugs,” wrote one Redditor.

It seems that hepatitis C is a go-to diagnosis, regardless of the actual cause of symptoms.

“My doctor told me I had hepatitis C,” wrote cant_afford_gas. “Turns out taking Mucinex can make your liver appear pretty screwed up.” We couldn’t verify the visual effects of Mucinex on the liver, but we do know this: Other Reddit users also complained of false diagnoses of hepatitis C. “Heh, fun story about being told you have hepatitis C by mistake,” wrote Sweetwill62. “So when I was 16, I went to go donate blood. About two weeks later I get a letter in the mail saying I have Hep C, and at the time [that] wasn’t very likely in the slightest.” Fun! “Turns out I make a protein that looks like Hep C on the kind of tests they were using. That was not a fun trip to the doctor, to be told I shouldn’t have been sent that letter because they had already re-tested it and realized it was a false positive.” Oops, we guess? Here’s a particularly egregious misdagnosis:    “Went to the doctor for a rash,” wrote cphoebney. “[The] nurse swore up and down it was something flesh-eating.” “It was dermatitis.” Finally, we’ll leave you with a misdiagnosis that led to a joyful event…more or less. “My mother went to the doctor with stomach pains and the doctor ran some tests and diagnosed it as gas or something and gave her some pills,” wrote amart591. “Turns out that was me, and I was almost accidentally [never born]. Thankfully she got a second opinion.” Get those second opinions, folks.

HealthyWay Staff Writer
HealthyWay’s Staff Writers work to provide well-researched, thought-provoking content.