When Sarah Boyle, 28, was diagnosed with an aggressive type of cancer called triple-negative breast cancer in 2016, her devastation knew no bounds. She was only 25 at the time and had just had her first child.
In 2012, Boyle, who lives in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England, found a lump on one of her breasts. Her doctors told her was benign and harmless. Over the years, she went in for several checkups to make sure the lump hadn’t gotten worse, and each time, she was assured everything was fine. While breastfeeding her baby, she noticed he wasn’t nursing from one breast, probably due to little or no flow of milk from it.
Her son’s continued refusal to nurse on that breast prompted her to have it checked again. She went to the Royal Stoke University Hospital and had a biopsy performed. There she was given the life-altering news. 
Her diagnosis was triple-negative cancer, which means that the three most common types of hormones and receptors to fuel breast cancer growth — estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2/neu gene — are not present in a supposedly malignant tumor. Although it is very aggressive, difficult to treat, and highly likely to recur, the absence of those receptors could aid the response of the cancer to chemotherapy if caught early enough.
However, Boyle never had any tumor of the sort. One single error changed her life forever.
‘No matter the diagnosis, I was going to beat it.’
Determined to beat the ailment, Boyle opted for full chemotherapy. She had eight rounds of it, two more than would be usually required due to the severity of her condition. Her husband lost his job to spend more time taking care of her. She suffered from severe alopecia as a side effect of the massive doses of chemo, and during that time, she could no longer nurse her child. According to her, her son was hit the hardest, and it deeply broke her heart. 
“The effect on Teddy was the worst part of it. I hated having to give up breastfeeding. I remember sobbing through the bars of his cot as he reached for me to feed him.”
When the chemo was complete, the doctors were not satisfied with the results. More scans showed that there had been no improvements; the size of the tumor remained the same. With the amount of chemo she was receiving, it was expected to have shrunken to at least half of its original size.
It’s awful to know they were treating something that didn’t need to be treated. A double mastectomy was the only option left.
A week later, her appointment was moved up, and she received a call to come into the hospital. She assumed it could only be bad news and was genuinely terrified. She’d done everything she could have done and had given up so much. What more did they want her to give?
“Any lady or man going through treatment will understand what I’m about to say: if you get a phone call early, you instantly — you’re scared. And it wasn’t my breast care nurse, and I think she didn’t phone me because she knew I’d know by her voice there was something not right. So, a secretary called and told me to come in.”
‘And I thought, I’ve done it.‘
Anxious to get a response, she grabbed the doctor’s hands and asked if she was going to die. To her surprise, he replied, “No, quite the opposite.”
When the doctor finally told her about the pathologist’s misdiagnosis, that the lump was always benign, she misunderstood it to mean she was then a cancer survivor.
“And I thought, I’ve done it. All that suffering, all the pain, and struggling to look after my little boy were for something because now I can be his mum,” she said.
‘I knew instantly how awful she must feel.’
Boyle is one amazing and forgiving woman. She met with the pathologist who had misread the scans and accepted the woman’s sincere apology. Boyle knew she was dealing with indescribable guilt for nearly running someone’s life, so she hugged the woman in a gesture of forgiveness. 
“I just wrapped my arms around her, and I said, ‘It’s okay.’ Because I instantly knew how awful she must feel, and, you know, I know that she’s got children, and I thought, ‘If that were my mum, I wouldn’t want her to feel awful or sad,’ because over the months and the year, I learned that you can’t hold on to that. But unfortunately for me, I’m just struggling a bit to just… recover.”
‘I’m worried about the possibility of developing cancer.’
Although she was told that her cancer treatment might lead to fertility issues, Boyle was able to have another child, a son named Louis. But while she has certainly been gracious and forgiving about the hospital’s mistake, the mother of two admitted that she’s anxious about her future because of the treatment and reconstructive surgery she has already endured.
“Being told I had cancer was awful, but then to go through all of the treatment and surgery to then be told it was unnecessary was traumatizing. And while I was delighted when I gave birth to Louis, it was really heartbreaking when I couldn’t breastfeed him,” Boyle said.
“As if that wasn’t bad enough, I am now worried about the possibility of actually developing cancer in the future because of the type of implants I have, and I am also worried about complications that I may face because of my chemotherapy.”
‘Gosh, they are amazing.’
And yet, Boyle still has positive things to say about the medical staff who treated her, in spite of all she has been through. 
“Gosh, they are amazing. And, this is the one big thing I want to just say that all of the women that have been treated or are being diagnosed today, tomorrow, yesterday, you are in safe hands. And they are dedicated, beautiful people, surgeons, oncologists, breast care, they’re fantastic.”
‘A human error’
The hospital has released a statement, apologizing for the misdiagnosis and revealing that it was due to a human error. They added that all cancer diagnoses are now being reviewed by another pathologist before a determination is made.
“A misdiagnosis of this kind is exceptionally rare, and we understand how devastating this has been for Sarah and her family,” they said. “Ultimately the misreporting of the biopsy was a human error so as an extra safeguard all invasive cancer diagnoses are now reviewed by a second pathologist.”
Boyle has secured legal representation from Irwin Mitchell solicitors. She hopes to find more answers on what’s being done to eliminate the possibility of a recurrence.
“While nothing will change what I’ve been through, I really need some answers on what is being done to make sure nobody else suffers in the same way I have.”
- “Mother undergoes chemotherapy, double mastectomy and surgery before being told cancer diagnosis was wrong“, The Independent. July 2019.
- “Mom misdiagnosed with cancer underwent chemotherapy, mastectomy, lawyers claim“, Fox News. July 2019.
- “Mum, 28, had chemotherapy and mastectomy only to be told she did not have cancer”, Mirror. July 2019.
- “25-Year-Old Mom Had Chemo & Surgery, Then Was Told She Never Had Breast Cancer”, The Breast Cancer Site.