Advertisement

Beauty influencer Jessica Pettway died of cervical cancer after being misdiagnosed with fibroids. Experts explain how that could happen — and what women should know.

YouTube Beauty influencer Jessica Pettway.
A YouTuber's death from cervical cancer raises concern about misdiagnoses regarding women's health. (Jessica Pettway/YouTube)

Popular YouTuber Jessica Pettway died from cervical cancer last week. Before her death, the beauty influencer told her followers she had undergone “agonizing pain” and “intense vaginal bleeding” — which she said doctors told her was caused by fibroids — and ended in a “devastating” cancer diagnosis.

Here’s how women’s health experts say women should advocate for themselves in what one called a “broken” medical system.

What happened

In one of Pettway’s last Instagram posts, dated July 31, the 36-year-old wife and mother of two young girls revealed to her 158,000 followers that she had been battling stage 3 cervical cancer.

Pettway shared that she began to have “intense vaginal bleeding” in June 2022. “I was experiencing extreme fatigue, weakness and just not feeling like myself. But again, I accepted this as a ‘normal’ symptom that most women go through,” she said.

According to the social media star, she was taken to the hospital on July 1, 2022, after her husband found her unresponsive in the bathroom. Her gynecologist said the blood loss was due to fibroids — which the Mayo Clinic defines as common, noncancerous “growths of the uterus” which “almost never turn into cancer.”

But a few weeks later, she again went to the hospital, where medical professionals treated her condition as just fibroids, Pettway shared. She also described having labor-like pains that limited her daily activities and passing blood clots “the size of a placenta.” She stayed in the hospital for a week in January 2023.

“I was told I could not get surgery to remove this ‘fibroid’ due to my lack of blood supply,” Pettway explained in her post. She added, “I had to receive 10 blood transfusions during my hospital stay. They recommended I do a biopsy.”

After getting a biopsy, Pettway says she woke up to the oncologist telling her, "Yep, you have stage 3 cervical cancer.” "It turns out, it was not a fibroid, but cancer,” Pettway told her followers. “I was misdiagnosed all this time.”

How could a misdiagnosis happen?

Dr. Tara Shirazian, the director for the Center for Fibroid Care at NYU Langone Health, tells Yahoo Life that the normalization of having fibroids is a “big problem” and “gets dismissed” because it is so common and thought to be mostly benign. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 40% to 80% of people with a uterus between the ages of 30 and 50 have fibroids.

That echoes Pettway’s experience. “My Gyno made it seem like [having fibroids] was so normal and common,” Pettway said in her post.

“Often when patients go in for care, their needs and the acuity of their situation is not heard and they're not able to be seen and heard to get … the care that they need,” Shirazian says.

But Shirazian says that the amount of bleeding Pettway had was a red flag and should have been followed up as a “quality-of-life issue.” “No one should be bleeding to the point that they need to get a blood transfusion. That means something is wrong and we need to be addressing the underlying cause,” Shirazian adds.

Shirazian warns that while bleeding is a major symptom of fibroids, not all people with fibroids bleed. Some have no symptoms at all.

Shirazian also emphasizes that fibroids and cervical cancer — which starts in the cervix — are not related. But both conditions can cause bleeding.

“Cervical cancer can bleed at more aggressive stages like stage 3 [which is what Pettway had] and it can feel like a mass on your cervix,” she says. “If you do an exam, you would know the difference.”

Cervical cancer symptoms can mirror those associated with fibroids. Here’s what to watch for.

Symptoms of fibroids can include:

  • Heavy bleeding or pain during your menstrual cycle

  • Pain during sex

  • Pelvic pain and pressure

  • Pain in your stomach

  • Frequent urination

  • Bloating and weight gain

Symptoms of cervical cancer can include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

  • An unusual discharge from the vagina, which could be tainted by blood and could happen between periods and post-menopause

  • Pain while having sex

  • Pelvic pain

Cervical cancer, which is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), is detected by getting a Pap smear or HPV test, the American Cancer Society says. Dr. Sherry Ross, an ob-gyn and women’s health expert, tells Yahoo Life that she advises her patients to get an annual HPV screening. But she warns that even detecting cervical cancer while bleeding can be complex.

“You're looking at two specific areas [during a pap smear],” Ross explains. “One is sort of the face of the cervix, and the other is this 3-to-4-centimeter canal. Trouble can happen in any of those areas. If you're adding in bleeding, it’s already a setup for a misdiagnosis, misinterpretation or inadequate ability to look for cells properly.”

Shirazian adds that women can take an HPV vaccine as a primary prevention for cervical cancer.

Why this is a bigger issue

Ross points out that the type of “terrible medical care” Pettway experienced disproportionately affects Black women. The Pew Research Center has found that over half of Black women between ages 18 and 49 say they’ve had to “speak up to get the proper care” they need.

“We have a broken medical system,” Ross says. “Women of color are marginalized even more in a broken system [in terms of] getting timely appointments, having insurance and being sent to the ER.”

A 2022 National Library of Medicine report found:

  • Black women have the lowest rate of follow-up after an abnormal cervical cancer screening

  • A quarter of Black and Hispanic woman have delayed follow-up in their screenings

  • What type of insurance a person has is also linked to a timely follow-up

A 2022 joint report by the Human Rights Watch and the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice also revealed that Black women are more likely to have a “late-stage” diagnosis for cervical cancer. They are also more likely to die from it than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

“This is the cause of deaths for many women, because they're not being taken care of properly in the medical community. We don't embrace people who need immediate care,” says Ross.