When Peter Cura died, his body was riddled with cancer. So how did doctors miss it - 37 times? Hester Lacey meets a widow fighting for the truth

It's hard to imagine what it's like being a widow with two small children when you are barely into your thirties. Knowing that your husband's death might have been avoidable makes the situation even worse. Julia Cura's late husband Peter made 37 visits to hospital, sometimes in great pain, before he was diagnosed with the kidney cancer that led to his death in February of this year. He was 31 years old. The Curas' two children, Lewis and Abbie, are six and three.

When Peter first began to feel ill, in April 2002, Julia was immediately concerned. "Peter never missed a day at work through illness, even a cold. He was always out football training or playing with Lewis. He was very fit and worked as a carpenter, which meant lots of lifting. Then he came home one day and said he had been passing blood." They went straight to their GP, who said there was a possibility of cancer, though it was unlikely given Peter's age. Peter was referred to Medway Maritime Hospital but ended up at the hospital's A&E department that night. "He was in agony. They said they could see an obstruction in his left kidney that was probably kidney stones."

The hospital stuck to this original diagnosis through dozens of further visits, x-rays, scans and eventually six operations. "Peter's left kidney was packing up and we asked if he should have it out, but it wasn't until December 2002 that they finally said it had no function and should be removed," recalls Julia, 33. "We then had to wait till July 2003 for the operation."

The operation made Peter feel better - for a time. But it also revealed the presence of an eight-inch malignant tumour. First, the family were told that there was a growth, but that it was nothing to worry about. Then they were told that the tumour had been contained within the kidney. By now they were very concerned and insisted on a CT scan. It was on Peter's 29th birthday, in September 2003, that they received the dreadful news that his cancer was now so advanced that it had spread into his abdominal organs. The only future was chemotherapy, which could do no more than prolong his life a little.

After further treatment at Maidstone Hospital, Peter was referred on to London's Royal Marsden. "The family all took it in turns to go up for his appointments," says Julia. "He liked driving but one of us went with him in case he couldn't drive himself back."

Peter kept working as long as he could to support his young family. "We were all frightened by now, but trying to reassure Peter and keep things normal," says Julia. By Christmas 2004, the Marsden was suggesting hospice care. Amazingly, Peter rallied again and even went back to work in the spring. But in the end, the cancer was too well-established to beat.

The Cura family is convinced that, had Peter's cancer been diagnosed correctly, he would still be alive today. Julia is determined that she will not let the case rest. "The hospital gave the cancer 18 months to spread," she says. "We asked Peter's consultant if he had cancer several times and we were told definitely not. The consultant later told us that, had Peter's kidney been removed 18 months earlier, he would probably have lived."

Throughout Peter's long treatment, an extraordinary lack of co-ordination between hospital departments meant the Curas were left to chase appointments and demand information: at one stage, they ended up following Peter's consultant on to his ward round. This same consultant, when Peter made his initial complaint, was invited to review his own work. He felt that he had done a good job.

It was Peter's mother Janet who suggested contacting Sarah Harman, a lawyer well known for her work in cases of medical negligence. The family also engaged independent experts to comment on Peter's case, who were unanimous that ruling out cancer had not been the correct way to proceed.

Despite this, Medway Hospital still put the family through the ordeal of having to start court proceedings, insisting that although errors had been made, Peter's cancer was so aggressive that he would have died even if it had been diagnosed a year earlier. Settlement was agreed just days before the court hearing. And the story doesn't end there: Julia has complained to the General Medical Council (GMC) about Peter's consultant urologist, John Palmer, and the family are seeking an independent inquiry into the case.

According to Sarah Harman, the Curas' case shows that the NHS is not equipped to deal internally with making redress to patients whose treatment has fallen short of acceptable standards. This is one of the key issues under review as part of the current debate over the NHS Redress Bill.

"What is being discussed is whether or not the NHS should deal with redress itself," explains Sarah Harman. "In this case, had Julia and Peter not gone further after making their initial complaints, a process which caused them extra distress, the hospital would have continued to insist that it had acted correctly."

Medway Maritime hospital issued the following statement. "Medway NHS Trust would again like to express its heartfelt and sincere condolences and regrets to the family of Mr Cura. Mistakes were made and nothing that the Trust can say will alleviate the suffering and loss experienced by the family. However lessons have been learned from this tragic case. We once again apologise unreservedly to Mr Cura's family."

The Cura family, meanwhile, are still waiting to hear from the GMC; and also for a response to their request for an independent inquiry. "This is such a terrible error to be made in the case of someone so young," says Julia Cura. "We're doing this for Peter."