It was the sort of bad news every patient fears. Merlin Erickson, a 69-year-old retired engineer in Abingdon, Md., was told last year that a biopsy of his prostate was positive for cancer.
Mr. Erickson, worried, began investigating the options: whether to have his prostate removed, or perhaps to have radiation treatment. But a few days later, the doctor called again.
As it turned out, Mr. Erickson did not have cancer. The lab had mixed up his biopsy with someone else's.
"Obviously, I felt great for me but sad for that other gentleman," Mr. Erickson said.
The other gentleman was Timothy Karman, 65, a retired teacher in Grandy, N.C. At first, of course, he had been told he was cancer-free. The phone rang again a few days later with news of the mix-up and a diagnosis of cancer.
Ultimately he had his prostate removed. "I said, 'Mistakes happen,'" Mr. Karman said.
They may be happening more often than doctors realize. There is no comprehensive data on how often pathology labs mix up cancer biopsy samples, but a few preliminary studies suggest that it may happen to thousands of patients each year.