Jessica Pettway's Cervical Cancer Death Shines Light on Health Disparities

The tragic passing of Jessica Pettway — a 36-year-old beauty influencer — highlights ongoing cervical cancer screening disparities for Black women.

After more than a year of suffering and being misdiagnosed with fibroids, content creator Jessica Pettway passed away from stage 3 cervical cancer on March 11.

Pettway shared her cancer diagnosis with her followers in July of 2023, explaining that she had initially been misdiagnosed with fibroids, which are noncancerous growths in the uterus. But after experiencing symptoms including intense vaginal bleeding and “labor-like pains,” she discovered that her tumors were, in fact, malignant.

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The mother of two tragically passed away roughly nine months after sharing her diagnosis online, and experts say the tragedy is a sad reflection of the disparities Black women face when it comes to cervical cancer screening and outcomes.

The tragedy that occurred with Jessica Pettway needs to be understood and can create awareness with Black women on the importance of regular screening,” Jessica Shepherd, M.D., a gynecologist and women’s health expert, tells Healthnews.

According to the American Cancer Society, the cervical cancer death rate in Black women and Native American women is about 65% higher than in white women.

What is cervical cancer?

Anyone with a cervix can develop cervical cancer, and symptoms are often not experienced until the disease has progressed, she says. This is why the Pap test and human papillomavirus (HPV) testing are used to ensure that abnormal cells and early-stage cervical cancer are caught early.

We have made significant progress in the fight against cervical cancer over the past several decades, yet, alarmingly, rates are beginning to increase among certain populations.

Shepherd

Cervical cancer incidence rates decreased by more than half from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s, according to the American Cancer Society, largely because of the increased use of screening, but they have stabilized over the past decade. However, in women ages 30-44, rates have increased 1.7% each year from 2012 to 2019.

In contrast, rates declined 11% each year for women ages 20-24, probably reflecting the first signs of cancer prevention from HPV vaccination.

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The importance of regular screening for cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is preventable with regular screening and highly treatable when caught early, Shepherd says. In fact, more than 50% of new cervical cancer cases occur in women who have never been screened or haven’t been screened in the past five years.

Recommended screening includes the Pap test every three years for women ages 21-29, and co-testing (Pap + HPV together) every five years for women starting at age 30.

“Co-testing is the most effective strategy for screening — it allows us to conduct both the Pap and HPV tests from the same sample,” Shepherd says. “The patient experience is exactly the same, but we get more information and data to detect early warning signs of cervical cancer.”

The frequency of screening for cervical cancer can depend on a person’s age and other risk factors, she says, adding that women should continue going to their doctor for an annual well-woman exam — a yearly check-up on sexual and reproductive health — to make sure they’re up-to-date with all of their screenings.

Addressing cervical cancer disparities

While medical misdiagnosis can happen to anyone, a study published earlier this year found that women and racial and ethnic minorities were 20% to 30% more likely than white men to experience a misdiagnosis.

And medical gaslighting — in which patients are told their symptoms are “normal” or less severe than they say — disproportionately impacts women, especially Black women and other women of color.

Shepherd says a lack of health and disease education in some communities is also a major contributor to the disparities that exist when it comes to screening and, ultimately, disease outcomes with cervical cancer.

“A woman’s race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location all contribute to her likelihood of receiving regular screening,” she says.

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Because of delays in screening, Sheperd says Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer than any other racial group, and they’re more than twice as likely to die of cervical cancer compared to white women in the United States.

“These delays are leading to cancer being discovered later, when the disease has become more serious,” she says. “This is why it’s crucial for screening guidelines and physician practices to continue to account for these ongoing inequities that directly affect how many women receive life-saving screenings they deserve.”

According to the American Cancer Society, the cervical cancer death rate in Black women and Native American women is about 65% higher than in white women.

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