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Woman who had radiation treatments sues Newton oncologist

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, March 6, 2014, at 8:09 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, March 8, 2014, at 7:22 a.m.

A physician with Central Care Cancer Center has been sued in Sedgwick County District Court for allegedly giving radiation to a woman who may not have had cancer.

The suit, filed for Nancy Funk of North Newton, is against Jorge Wong, a radiation oncologist who performed 15 treatments of radiation therapy on Funk in early 2010.

The trial began Tuesday, with Judge Warren Wilbert presiding.

“Being told I had cancer skewed everything in my life,” Funk testified Wednesday. “Everything was different. Even somebody saying ‘How are you?’ … Everything was viewed through a lens of having cancer. I was very upset, very withdrawn. I really didn’t enjoy things in my life anymore because I was scared.”

Wong’s attorney, Brian Wright of Great Bend, argues that the physician did what a “reasonably prudent doctor would do,” and that cancer diagnoses are not always black and white.

“Sometimes there are gray areas and sometimes the pathologist can’t tell you with 100 percent certainty, to where they would go to their grave swearing that it’s cancer,” Wright said.

“So the question isn’t in this lawsuit ‘What do you do when you know for sure?’ The question is ‘What do you do when you know for pretty darn good sure, but you’re not 100 percent certain?’ 

Red spot

In summer 2009, the now 54-year-old Funk noticed a 3-millimeter-by-1-millimeter red spot on the inside of her left lower eyelid when she was putting in her contact lenses. The spot did not cause any symptoms, but she went to get it checked out.

After visits with an optometrist and ophthalmologist, Funk had the spot removed and sent to pathology for testing. She also scheduled an appointment with Leonid Shunyakov, a medical oncologist and hematologist also with Central Care Cancer Center.

Originally the suit also named Shunyakov as a defendant, alleging he incorrectly diagnosed Funk before referring her to Wong. Shunyakov was dropped from the suit pre-trial, said Blake Shuart, an attorney with Hutton and Hutton who is representing Funk.

Funk was at work when she got a call that the pathology report was “strongly suspicious” of MALT lymphoma – a rare, slow-moving cancer.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. It was the end of my world,” Funk testified.

But then she received a call from her ophthalmologist that a different test done at the Mayo Clinic – that can determine if cells are malignant – was negative. It has a roughly 25 percent false negative rate.

So when she went to Shunyakov for the appointment, Funk expected good news.

She was scared when she learned her doctors still recommended radiation.

“My husband and I walked to the parking lot and cried together,” she said.

Funk knew waiting and watching was an option instead of going forward with radiation treatment, Wright argued. But she says the physicians encouraged radiation.

Shuart argued that Funk did not have a definitive cancer diagnosis based on pathology reports.

“The defense is going to call Nancy Funk a cancer survivor. But what we’re going to prove to you is that Nancy Funk is a victim of malpractice – a victim of unnecessary radiation treatments that should have never been performed,” Shuart said.

“Every office note (says) ‘Diagnosis: Cancer.’ ‘Diagnosis: MALT lymphoma.’ It never says ‘Diagnosis: probable, suspected MALT lymphoma.’ The diagnosis is always unequivocal in those records,” Shuart said.

Funk experienced stabbing pain and excessive watering of her eye during treatments and is at risk of later developing cataracts and other issues.

She seeks up to $14,000 for the radiation treatments in addition to unspecified amounts for non-economic damages, Shuart said.

Competing experts

In June 2010 – months after receiving radiation – Funk sought a second opinion from Michael Cannon, a physician with the Cancer Center of Kansas, who told her the radiation treatments should have never been done and did not meet standards set forth by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

He suggested Funk seek legal action.

“I told her that I felt that she should not have received radiation because there was no definitive diagnosis,” he said.

Cannon said he’s never testified against a fellow physician before. He was paid $2,000 for his time away from patients, Shuart said.

Because Cannon works at a competing practice, Wright argued that bad publicity for Central Care Cancer Center could help Cancer Center of Kansas. Cannon said that did not weigh into his decision to testify or to encourage Funk to sue.

Michael Grossbard, a medical oncologist and chief of hematology-oncology at Mount Sinai Beth Israel and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Roosevelt hospitals in New York City, testified on Wong’s behalf .

“(The pathologist’s) phrasing in the pathology report that this was ‘strongly suspicious’ for lymphoma, for me, would have been good enough to base treatment,” Grossbard testified.

The Mayo Clinic test is not required for diagnoses, Grossbard said, and because no more tissue could be studied, physicians had to look at the evidence they already had.

Grossbard was paid about $5,400 for reviewing case documents and another $7,500 to travel to Wichita and testify.

If Funk had cancer and hadn’t had radiation, Grossbard said there was about a “30 percent chance that (cancer) could have disseminated throughout the body and led to an early death and been incurable.”

The trial is expected to wrap up Friday.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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