11/14/2014 04:34 EST | Updated 01/14/2015 05:59 EST

Lung cancer diagnosis wrong, Hamilton man finds out

A musician and father from Hamilton has a new lease on life after being wrongfully diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Now, 46-year-old Larry Reece is demanding answers from area hospitals over his misdiagnosis, and their recommendation for chemotherapy that he says could have killed him if he’d gone through with it. The hospitals say a "one in a million" case of cross-contamination of his test samples with another patient's caused the problem, and a full review of the case is underway.

“It likely would have killed me,” Reece told CBC Hamilton. “I dodged a few bullets. I was down in the trenches.”

Reece says he was a healthy man and non-smoker back in early 2013 when he developed a nasty cough.

He couldn’t shake that cough over the next few months, and underwent a CT scan at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton's Firestone Clinic that revealed he had sarcoidosis – a rare but treatable lung disease that can look like cancer on scans.

But a lung biopsy that followed in May came back with much more serious results. According to doctors, Reece had stage-four lung cancer that had started to spread. “He told me it looked like I’d die within a year,” Reece said. He was then referred to the Juravinski Hospital, and was told he should start chemotherapy right away.

Like many would be in that situation, he was shocked. But he also flatly didn’t believe the diagnosis. “I thought ‘how could this happen to me?’” he said. “I didn’t feel that sick.” Often, a person with advanced lung cancer would lose weight and experience pain – but that wasn’t happening.

So he took a chance and refused the chemotherapy, which can weaken the immune system. That would lower his ability to fight the sarcoidosis from his original diagnosis.

Finding a second opinion

Instead, he went to the company he worked for, Thermo Fisher Scientific, for help. Reece works as a distribution data analyst for the organization, which specializes in health-care research. The company’s former chief medical officer, Dr. Paul Billings, took up the case.

Billings disagreed with the cancer diagnosis, he told The Toronto Star, and so sent Reece's first tissue sample to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., for more tests.

Doctors there said the first sample tested positive for cancer, but his biopsy results came back negative. According to The Toronto Star, a blood sample sent to Guardant Health in California also came back negative.

Doctors on both sides of the border argued over the diagnosis for months, Reece told CBC Hamilton. Eventually, Hamilton doctors performed another biopsy and found no cancer, but did confirm the original sarcoidosis diagnosis.

In a joint statement emailed to the CBC from St. Joseph's Healthcare and Hamilton Health Sciences, officials said a review of the case is underway and they plan to share the findings of that review with Reece and his family when it's done.

"In the interim, we can confirm that cross contamination occurred in processing Mr. Reece’s specimen," the statement reads. "Through DNA testing, we can affirm with 100 per cent certainty that no other patients are affected by this issue."

'How could this happen?'

The statement says that the likelihood of a mistake like this happening is one in 500,000 to one in a million, and that quality assurance checks happen on both equipment and processes on a daily basis at both hospitals.

"This is a very unfortunate situation, and we sincerely regret the distress caused to Mr. Reece and his family," the statement reads. "Together with Mr. Reece, we look at this as an opportunity to learn and improve upon our processes."

Reece felt immense relief and happiness over his second diagnosis, but also anger over the whole ordeal. By that point, he had told his children he’d been diagnosed with cancer. “It was extremely difficult,” he said. “It was a brutal thing to do.”

“How could this happen with all this modern technology?”

Reece counts himself lucky, but knows that many people don’t have access to the medical help that he had through his job. Now, he’s speaking out to stress the importance of asking questions to doctors, and seeking a second opinion if things don’t seem to add up.

“I’m very, very lucky,” he said. “This could have damaged my system big time.”