Lawsuits for Oral Cancer

I am not the type of person who runs to file a lawsuit. In fact, I didn’t even think of it after recovering from surgery from oral cancer.  A relative who is a lawyer came to visit me after surgery and said, “Something is terribly wrong here. A healthy young woman…and now you look like Frankenstein.” He insisted I have a photographer take photos of my surgical sites. I told him I didn’t want to remember what I looked like. But, he arranged for a photographer because he thought one day, I may need those photos. He was right.

After barely making it through the radiation, this relative suggested I have a potential lawsuit. I was warned that a lawsuit is emotionally and physically draining and can drag on for months, even years. After regaining my voice, I started to think. I was given a 15% chance of survival. There was a decent chance I wasn’t going to be around to raise my two young children. If I were to win a lawsuit, I would create a college education fund for them. At least if I couldn’t educate them as a mother would, I would hope a good school along with family and friends could replace some of that important knowledge. However, an even stronger motivation to pursue a lawsuit would be to make a strong statement to my dental professionals about preventing the same kind of treatment to happen to another patient. Also, the exposure could educate the community. If even one person read the article and it saved a life, all the aggravation of a lawsuit would make it worth it.

I started the process, and kept questioning whether I wanted to drag my family through the heartache of a lawsuit. But, the determining factor to continue, was this: After I was diagnosed, and my husband called both the oral surgeons and dentists that I was diagnosed at stage IV, I NEVER HEARD FROM THEM AGAIN. I was a patient and yet, they didn’t have the compassion to call, send a note, or show any concern. This admitted more guilt than acting humanely. Yes I realize their lawyers probably told them ‘don’t admit guilt.’ But should that stop a person from treating another person with compassion?

During the lawsuit, it was uncovered that my dentists altered the notes. That is harder to do these days with digital charting. We settled. My oral surgeons based a treatment plan for me on a biopsy that was 2 years old. They never questioned the biopsy (which happened to have been misread). That is negligence, plain and simple. We settled. The court case went through to final statements with the pathologist who read my biopsy as hyperkeratosis instead of moderate dysplasia. After close to a year, we settled with enough money to put one child through a private college. Was it worth the heartache, tears, frustration, anger….not only to me, but to my husband and all the people dragged into the case for questioning? I would answer, barely. I think my case, the lawyers representing the dental professionals were particularly grueling.

If you are a dental professional and have not seen the page on this website about protecting yourself legally, click here. In short, if a dental professional provides an oral cancer screening and it all looked good, they would note in the charts, ‘WNL’ or ‘within normal limits.’ However, no longer will WNL protect you in a court of law. Now, it should read that an ‘intra and extra oral exam’ was performed.

Here is a summary of a Oral Cancer litigation from 2006 published on the Oral Cancer Foundation website. It describes a case of negligence followed by suggestions for dental professionals when sending tissue for a biopsy:

  • Call the laboratory to ensure receipt of the biopsy. Document the call.
  • Determine when you can expect results, and note the day.
  • Follow up with the laboratory if you do not receive the results on the agreed upon day.
  • Set an appointment to take another biopsy if something goes awry with the first biopsy. Consider not charging for the second biopsy.
  • Call the patient when you get the biopsy results. Document the details of the call. If appropriate, refer to a specialist and follow up to ensure the patient went to the specialist, and document those efforts.
  • Obtain a second opinion when pathology reports are inconclusive.

If you are a survivor of oral cancer and questioning whether you should pursue a lawsuit, think about it the emotional toll it will take and balance that thought with the lesson it will provide to the doctors and the community. I didn’t have any outward disfiguration, so it was harder for a jury to look at me and think I was due monetary damages. That hurt my case. It isn’t easy to understand the internal damage of a late diagnosis for oral cancer: the potentially disfiguring surgery, the barbaric mask for radiation and the loss of oral health years after treatment.

Once the dental complications begin to arise due to the late-term effects of radiation, having extra money to pay for all the dental bills could be a real benefit.

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Comments 18

  1. I’m writing for a friend who had tongue cancer.
    For 30 years she has worked in a shop where she soders components.
    She wonders if that could have contributed to this. She does not wear a mask. She is able to open a window.
    She spoke to her doctor but he did not seemed interested in having a conversation.
    Just wondering if there is ant documentation.

    1. Post

      You will never be able to prove that oral cancer was caused by 1st, 2nd, or 3rd hand smoke, mercury or amalgam in fillings or environmental causes. Some firefighters believe they got their cancer from smoke filled homes….but it is all speculation. If her cancer was at the base of the tongue, it is probably HPV related and has nothing to do with fumes from molding metals. Feel free to contact me with more thoughts or questions. Please let me know you have seen my response. Where was her cancer? Lateral border of tongue, floor, or base? Was she ever a smoker?

      1. I have tonsil cancer and I am in treatment but was wondering if I should file a law suit cause smoking and chewing caused it.it is rough I can barely talk

        1. Post

          It is unlikely you will win a lawsuit against the mammoth tobacco companies with teams of lawyers. Also, I’m not sure it can be proved that indeed it was caused by smoking and chewing although very likely. I know a survivor who worked at the age of 16 on the smoking car on a train. Years later, he developed oral cancer and believed it was from the trains. he lost the lawsuit, and a lot of time, emotional turmoil and money. Focus on healing. Are you on the Oral Cancer Foundation Patient Forum where you can connect with others like you and ask questions of medical experts?

  2. Dear Eva, I’m 63 and have stage 4 oral cancer. I lost the left side of my tongue, the floor of the mouth and my jaw bone was shaved to get a margin. I had two positive lymph nodes. I went through chemo/radiation and finished August 2015. It can be a lonely experience. I just filed a complaint against my ENT for failure to diagnose/treat. My legal team found several experts to support my case but we still need an Oncologist who can clarify how fast squamous cell carcinoma can spread. I’ve been searching for articles but never get very far. Do you have any suggestions?

    I was seeing this ENT for routine follow-ups of suspicious tissue. He said I was fine. Then, I had a wisdom tooth extracted and my dentist said I was NOT fine. He was flabbergasted that my ENT said I was fine. The dentist referred me to an ENT who focuses only on cancer cases at a major medical center in Tucson. After two surgeries, I was diagnosed with stage IV oral cancer.

    How fast does SCC spread? Do I have a case? I’d appreciate your advice. Thanks for being there to help,
    Best Regards,

    1. Post

      Judy, we emailed personally, but know that every SCC is different. Some are aggressive and others aren’t. Perhaps, a pathologist would be able to tell if it is a more aggressive type. Keep in touch.

  3. Had my jaw replaced with shoulder blade due to cancer and was former smoker 30 years ago. Can I sue big tobacco?

    1. Post

      It’s nearly impossible to prove unequivocally it was the tobacco that caused your cancer. I know a man who sued the railroad he worked for because he was put in the smoking car at the age of 16 and worked in that car for many years. He lost his case because there are people that get the same that have not smoked. I’m sure those companies have a very shrewd team of lawyers, too.

      Also, a lawsuit can be emotionally and physically exhausting. I did it for the lesson learned but it was not the best way to accomplish my goal.

  4. I had oral cancer to the tongue where they removed from my tongue, stage 2 and three lump nodes which came back clean. No radiation or Kemo. How or can anyone say where I got this from or might have possibly caused this. I was in military, worked at nuclear power plant and railroad. Thank you…Glenn

    1. Post

      Where on the tongue was your cancer? If it was in the ‘oral cavity’ then the most likely cause is smoking/drinking. If it’s near the base of the tongue then it’s most probably HPV. Mine was on the lateral border of my tongue and I never smoked and rarely drink. I fall into the 7% category of people who get this with no risk factors. How many years are you a survivor?

  5. My brother had a molar pulled do to cracked filling the detest talked him in to implant .shortly after he had so by implant .he had byopsy and has stage 4 cancer he is getting jaw surgery and rebuilding jaw with bone from leg , also he is a smoker and drinker do you think he has a case against all involved the guy that did implant was new to the field of implants

    1. Post

      If you are considering a lawsuit, you need to determine the delay in diagnosis. I am not a dental professional, however, if your brother was stage 4 within a short period of time after the placement of the implant, I believe the dental professionals were NOT providing an oral cancer screening. Ask the dental practice if they have any intra oral photographs from before the tooth was pulled, and after it healed before the implant was placed. In the very least, you should ask for the money back paid for the implant. If the practice wants to avoid a lawsuit, they should refund the money. Know that the emotional stress of a lawsuit should be considered as your brother will have a lot on his plate with the surgery and treatment. Was his cancer HPV+? Did the tumor initiate under the molar?

  6. My brother was getting a tooth implant procedure but he had too much pain and the implants didn’t work for his bones so the dentist kept trying to put the implants but since he had so much pain and nothing healed he looked for a new dentist. The new dentist found something wrong so he made some exams and found a 4 stage tumor on his tongue base. He had to get jaw removed and replace from his leg bones, he also had a tongue and tongue base removed , now he is going to be on radiation and chemotherapy treatment starting next week. What do you recommend my brother should do. He is a landscaper ( his own company ), he never smoked nor drinks alcohol but had contact with pesticides from his many years in his business.

    1. Post

      Hi Gerardo, your brother did the right thing by finding a new dentist! It’s too bad he was diagnosed late. I wonder if he had symptoms he did not report to his dentist like difficulty swallowing or one-sided pain. Anyhow, I hope the treatment will give him many years of life. He is leaving a legacy to all who know him how to live life with courage. I need smoked either. Pesticides may have been part of the cause. HPV is also a likely culprit. I hope he has many people in the family to support him through this difficult time. It won’t be easy, but it teaches the whole family what it means to be compassionate and empathetic.

  7. Eva,

    We feel there was negligence with my son. His dentist diagnosed his symptoms as a traumatic stress ulcer and a sharp tooth. The ENT concurred and a few weeks passed. My son thought he had cancer and went back to the ENT complaining of pain. My son insisted on a biopsy. The ENT acted shocked when it came back positive for cancer. A portion of my sons tongue was removed as well as lymph nodes in right neck. Additionally, he needed chemo and radiation. Then, he had a recurrence and needed additional surgery. Should we pursue a lawsuit?

    1. Post

      Charles, A lawsuit comes with much emotional distress for the whole family. You need to deeply consider whether the chance of winning is worth it. I had a lawsuit mostly because I didn’t want the dentist to ever again diagnose another person late, as I was. Perhaps, my time and energy would have been better spent focussing on the future instead of dwelling on everything that went wrong with my care. You can always consult a lawyer and see if there is a chance you can win. Will it make you feel better if you won the case? I would recommend you start by making sure all the treating dental professionals are aware of the road your son had to travel due to a ‘wait & watch’ treatment plan. Ask them what they are doing differently in the practice so what happened to your son doesn’t happen to anyone else.

  8. Hi Eva, this forum is really helpful.

    I was just diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma Well differentiated on the underside of my tongue, way back in my throat. It recently started bothering me so I had my dentist look at it and he sent me to a specialist. What bothers me is that I have been to my dentist dozens of times in the past couple years because I am getting implants. My specialist said this is something that was growing for a while. In your opinion, is this something my dentist should have caught earlier? The last thing I want to do is think about is a lawsuit right now, but I am thinking it is better to talk to a lawyer now before all hell breaks loose. I hear how much it has spread next week and my surgery is two days later.

    1. Post

      Hi Mario, Concentrate on getting through this surgery and not on a potential lawsuit. You deserve your own full attention. You are full of emotions and it’s natural to want to blame someone. Was your dental practice providing oral cancer screenings at your dental checkup-ups?

      In general, how far back was the SCC lesion? A dental practice is only responsible for the oral cavity and not beyond the view of the tonsils. Then, it falls to an ENT. However, if you had no symptoms, there would be no reason to see an ENT for a scope.

      Lawsuits are incredibly emotionally draining. To win the suit isn’t easy, and it would largely depend on how long the delay is and how your quality of life has been affected, and you won’t know that until after surgery and any other treatment.

      So, focus on yourself. Get strong. Clear your head. Think with an attitude of gratitude, that it was caught now instead of later.

      I would like to know which cancer center is doing your surgery and how old you are.

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