Understanding Cervical Cancer
- The National Health Service in the United Kingdom has apologized to the family of Porsche McGregor-Sims, a 27-year-old aspiring model who died from aggressive cervical cancer that was misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome.
- She died on April 14, 2020, after late-stage cervical cancer spread to her lungs. The cancer reached such an advanced stage because her doctor repeatedly dismissed her symptoms.
- Cervical cancer is a type of gynecologic cancer that is typically detected through a routine Pap smear.
- While it is unknown what caused Porsche’s cancer, it is known that HPV causes more than 70% of cervical cancer cases.
Porsche McGregor-Sims, 27, died on April 14, 2020, after late-stage cervical cancer spread to her lungs. The cancer reached such an advanced stage because her doctor, Dr. Peter Schlesinger, a gynecologist locum consultant in the U.K., repeatedly dismissed her symptoms. (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.)Read More
“If (Dr. Scheslinger) had examined her (in late January 2020) then she would have been referred for a colposcopy (procedure to closely examine your cervix, vagina and vulva for signs of disease) more quickly,” Dr. Burton said, “where diagnosis would have been made.”
“I would like to express our condolences to Porsche’s family and friends, and to apologize for the care she had here,” Dr. Burton added.
It all started for Porsche, who’s from England, 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 a February 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, according to SurvivorNet experts.
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.