Understanding Cervical Cancer
- A 27-year-old aspiring model from England died just one day after she was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer in April 2020. Her doctor repeatedly dismissed her symptoms.
- Cervical cancer is a type of gynecologic cancer that is typically detected through a routine Pap smear; during this test, your doctor will collect a sample of cells from your cervix (using a small brush or spatula).
- Cervical cancer is unique in that it is usually preventable with the HPV vaccine. And that is why you should get vaccinated against HPV, SurvivorNet experts say.
The woman’s doctor repeatedly dismissed her symptoms, a recent inquest at Portsmouth Coroner’s Court heard. (In the United Kingdom, an inquest is an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding a person’s death, such as how, when and where they died in order for their death to be registered.)Read More
“Porsche always had a sense of joy and vibrancy about her; she shined so brightly and I don’t think we really appreciated that until we heard she was gone,” the mourning mother added. “She was willing to see the good in everything and everyone. She was a lovely person, and losing her is like having the sun burn out.”
Fast forward nearly two years, during the recent inquest, Hawke delivered a sobering message to Dr. Peter Schlesinger, a gynecologist locum consultant in the U.K. and her late daughter’s doctor. (Note that in the U.K., a locum is a person who temporarily stands in for someone else of the same profession, especially a cleric or doctor.)
“You didn’t do the most basic thing: give her an internal examination — one of the most simple and fundamental ways to assess someone for cervical cancer,” Hawke told Dr. Schlesinger.
It all started for Porsche in December 2019 when she visited her general practitioner complaining of abdominal pain and bleeding. She was referred to a different doctor, which is when she saw Dr. Schlesinger in January 2020.
During the inquest, Dr. Schlesinger said that he thought her symptoms were simply hormonal, as she stopped getting birth control injections about a year prior to the onset of her symptoms. For this reason, he did not perform a vaginal examination on Porsche.
The doctor added that there “seemed no benefit” in performing the examination as she was “only” 27 years old — young for cervical cancer.
“If someone was in the room with me, I probably would have done (the examination),” he admitted. “But we are all here today with the benefit of hindsight.”
The doctor added that the Pap smear she had two years prior, as well as a scan, both returned normal results.
“I felt there were a number of potential causes to her pain,” he said. “In view of the fact she had stopped her birth control, I suggested she take it again to see if the pain stopped.”
Two months would pass before Porsche visited the doctor yet again, this time complaining that she was short of breath. She was ultimately prescribed antibiotics, but when her symptoms only got worse, her general practitioner thought she had Covid-19, so the 27-year-old was brought to the medical office for a face-to-face visit.
But she was rushed to the hospital. There, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer on April 13, 2020. However, she died the next day, on April 14.
Porsche’s death was likely the result of U.K. guidelines that say women who are suspected of having cervical cancer must wait two weeks before they are seen by a doctor, a coroner suggested.
“I was very sorry to hear she was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer,” Dr. Schlesinger said. “This type of cancer is rare and is less likely to be picked up on smear tests. When I first qualified (in 1987 to be a doctor), we examined everyone (physically), but since scans and smear tests have become available, we do them less.”
Understanding Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is a type of gynecologic cancer that is typically detected through a routine Pap smear; during this test, your doctor will collect a sample of cells from your cervix (using a small brush or spatula). The cells are then examined under a microscope for abnormalities, including cancer and changes that could indicate pre-cancer.
While it is unknown what caused Porsche’s cancer, it is known that the human papillomavirus, or HPV, causes more than 70% of cervical cancer cases.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, it is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 79 million Americans have HPV.
“The vast majority of humans in the U.S., both men and women, will eventually get infected with human papillomavirus,” Dr. Allen Ho, director of the Head and Neck Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, previously told SurvivorNet. “The important thing to know about HPV is that there are many different strains, and only a couple of them tend to be more cancer inducing. Probably less than 1 percent of the population who get infected happen to have the cancer-causing virus that, somehow, their immune system fails to clear.”
Cervical cancer is unique in that it is usually preventable with the HPV vaccine. And that is why those eligible should get vaccinated against HPV, SurvivorNet experts say.
The vaccine is typically given to children before they are sexually active, as HPV is transmitted through sexual contact.
“We recommend strongly that children are vaccinated against HPV to prevent cervical cancer, but also to prevent head and neck cancer,” Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist specializing in head and neck cancer at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet.
“Now the key with the vaccine is that you received the vaccine before you ever reach sexual debut or have sexual encounters. So that’s why these vaccines are approved for young children ages 9, 10, 11 years old, up to 26.”
Contrary to some detrimental misinformation circulated online, the HPV vaccine is entirely safe. There are virtually no side effects with this vaccine, Dr. Jonathan Berek, director of the Women’s Cancer Center at Stanford Medical Center, told SurvivorNet. It is “incredibly safe,” he added.