Hundreds call cancer hotline

HUNDREDS of worried patients yesterday called a special telephone helpline in the wake of the Birmingham cancer test errors.

A review of 1,800 bone tumour tests began after it was revealed in a damning report of a government inquiry that at least 42 people at Birmingham's Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, which treats bone cancer sufferers from across the country, had been wrongly diagnosed. Some 190 diagnoses have already been rechecked since the errors came to light in May.

Seven people are already known to have been given unnecessary cancer treatment and one cancer sufferer had to wait several months for treatment after wrongly being given the all-clear.

South Birmingham Health Authority said the helpline would remain open until after the weekend.

More than 250 people rang in yesterday. However, it could be several weeks before patients whose conditions were diagnosed by Dr Carol Starkie, the 55-year-old consultant pathologist at the centre of the affair, know the results of new tests.

A spokesman said bone tumour diagnoses were often hard to make. 'There are only a handful of pathologists in the country who have the expertise to review the diagnosis, so it is going to take some time.' The interim report of an independent government- commissioned inquiry revealed on Thursday that bone cancer doctors at the Royal Orthopaedic failed for eight years to alert managers to the diagnostic errors made by Dr Starkie, based two miles away at the Selly Oak Hospital. Specialists failed to complain because they feared disclosure might mean service cuts.

Investigations were only ordered in May this year, when managers claimed to have first found out about the misdiagnoses. It then emerged that Matthew Guest, nine, and Debbie Leary, 14, were wrongly diagnosed and received treatment for cancer they did not have.

Professor Gordon McVie, scientific director of the Cancer Research Campaign, said there was a small risk of long-term damage: 'It has always been a curious quirk of cancer treatment that you can cure people and yet the treatment can also give you cancer. We have no figures to show what the effects on a patient are of short- term therapy, but there is a 5 per cent risk of developing cancer later on after six months of combined chemo-radio therapy.'

Patients could receive damages running into six figures if they develop a life-threatening disease.

They are likely to benefit from a system known as 'provisional damages' in which they would initially be awarded much smaller sums, according to Ken Grealis, a London-based specialist in negligence cases.

'But if they develop cancer in 15 years or 30 years' time, they would be allowed to come back to court and ask for another bite of the cherry.'

Worried patients and relatives can telephone the helpline on 0800 318880.