Beauty influencer, 36, dies from cervical cancer allegedly misdiagnosed as fibroid

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published April 19, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Beauty influencer Jessica Pettway died of cervical cancer this March.

  • Reports say her doctors dismissed early symptoms of her disease, which may have influenced her worsening symptoms and subsequent death.

  • Listening to patients and diagnosing cancers early, when possible, are vital steps in reducing mortality risks.

Family, friends, and followers are mourning the loss of beauty influencer Jessica Pettway, who died from cervical cancer on March 11. Pettway was diagnosed with cervical cancer in February 2023, but reports indicate that her cancer may have been misdiagnosed much earlier.[]

Her death highlights flaws in diagnosis and treatment of Black women in healthcare and raises questions about malpractice in the field.

Pettway’s delayed diagnosis

In a July 31, 2023 Instagram post, Pettway shared her delayed diagnosis with her followers. In the post, she reported experiencing symptoms of “intense vaginal bleeding” in June 2023, stating she was “literally bleeding out.” Pettway noted that she dismissed these symptoms as “normal” at the time. In July 2022, she stated, her husband found her unresponsive in the bathroom, where she appeared to have passed out due to blood loss. Doctors diagnosed Pettway with a fibroid at the time, discharging her from the hospital after an overnight stay.

“My Gyno made it seem like it was so normal and common,” Pettway wrote in the Instagram post. “I didn't think much of it, however I was passing clots the size of a placenta, which was really alarming.”

The bleeding subsided and then returned months later—in late December—during an episode that “would not stop” and that was coupled with extreme pain, Pettway shared. Doctors told her they could not conduct surgery on her to remove the so-called “fibroid” due to her “lack of blood supply,” she stated. She was not officially diagnosed with cervical cancer until February, at which time the cancer had progressed to stage 3. Pettway died the next month.

In comments on the Instagram post, people have voiced support for Pettway and anger at the healthcare system and its treatment of Black women.

“Please seek legal action for your misdiagnosis,” one commenter wrote. “Black women are far too often ignored or shrugg[ed] off. Had multiple someones in your health system done their due diligence, this could have been caught prior to becoming stage 3. We have to fight back. Praying for your health and your healing.”

“[T]his is a prime example of the medical field ignoring Black women,” another commenter wrote. “I am VERY sorry and upset that this happened to you. The constant brushing off of Black women’s pain is an epidemic.”

Missed diagnosis and more deaths

When compared with White women, Black women are more likely to experience cervical cancer, present with an advanced stage of the disease, and die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. They are also more likely to die from some subtypes of cervical cancer, such as cervical adenocarcinoma (ADC), despite having the lowest incidence rate of the specific subtype, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).[][]

Some research suggests that race and ethnicity impact follow-up time after an abnormal cervical cancer screening, thereby influencing outcome disparities. A 2022 study found that there is “inadequate follow-up after abnormal cervical cancer screening” across all races/ethnicities; however, lack of adherence is higher in Black patients.”[]

Delayed diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer have also been shown to increase the risks of mortality from the disease.[]

Listening to patients is crucial for diagnosing and treating conditions, especially in women’s healthcare and OB/GYN practices. However, this doesn’t happen in every doctor’s office.

Matthew Casavant, MD, a board-certified OB/GYN and the founding physician of South Lake OB/GYN, says he’s noticed how gynecological conditions including endometriosis can be overlooked or misdiagnosed.

“I’ve witnessed how crucial thorough assessments and informed patient interactions are,” Dr. Casavant tells MDLinx

He encourages other physicians to treat patients personally and holistically and not dismiss them without a diagnosis if there are more questions to be answered. “In cases of doubt, second opinions and further diagnostic evaluations should be a standard protocol,” Dr. Casavant says. “Keeping up with continued medical education and current research also keeps physicians equipped with knowledge about evolving symptoms and novel treatment approaches, thus preventing potential oversight and reducing malpractice occurrences.”

On the patient side, “fostering open communication channels, respecting patient concerns, and methodically validating those concerns with appropriate medical investigations,” is vital in mitigating risks and ensuring they are active participants in their health, he says.

“Establishing trust and transparency with patients by discussing diagnostic findings and treatment rationales further ensures that they are part of their health decisions, which is fundamental in any medical practice,” Dr. Casavant adds. 

When misdiagnosis becomes malpractice

Missing a diagnosis like cervical cancer or misdiagnosing a patient with something else not only puts their life at risk, but also puts a doctor’s integrity on the line.

Tina Willis, an Orlando-based injury and accident lawyer and owner of Tina Willis Law, says that a doctor’s actions can be considered medical malpractice if they both fall below the accepted standard of care and directly cause injury or harm to a patient. Unfortunately, for patients seeking damages, this doesn't always mean they will win their case.

“The reality of medical malpractice litigation across the country is that unless the patient suffered at least permanent and severe harm, or often catastrophic harm, most lawyers will not pursue medical malpractice cases because of the practical implications of very restrictive laws in most states,” Willis explains.

In women’s healthcare, she says, examples of a doctor dismissing or minimizing a woman’s concerns could include situations like failing to adequately assess the patient's symptoms and medical history, not ordering appropriate diagnostic tests or making necessary referrals, or disregarding "red flags" or alarming symptoms, such as severe pain, unexpected bleeding, rapidly progressing symptoms, or signs of malignancy.

“If a doctor fails to act on these warning signs, and the patient suffers significant harm, the doctor’s inaction may constitute malpractice,” Willis says. “A missed diagnosis alone is not necessarily malpractice if it did not change the ultimate outcome. However, if the diagnostic delay allowed a disease to progress, which then led to additional injury, treatment, costs, or a worse prognosis, a malpractice claim may be viable.”

In order to keep doctors and patients safe, Willis says that doctors should be sure to:

  1. Take patient concerns seriously

  2. Allow enough time to take a thorough medical history

  3. Perform a complete physical exam

  4. Order appropriate tests and imaging

  5. Refer patients to specialists for uncertain diagnoses

  6. Have systems in place for following up on test results

  7. Maintain open communication with patients

Additionally, Willis says that “physicians must be especially cognizant of implicit biases that may lead them to minimize women's symptoms.” 

“Listening closely, believing a patient's stated experience, investigating thoroughly, and erring on the side of caution are all essential [for] preventing the devastating consequences of missed diagnoses in women's health,” Willis adds.

What this means for you

Listening to patients and not dismissing symptoms are crucial steps in catching diseases, especially in women’s healthcare. Doctors should take the time to listen to their patient’s concerns in order to catch diseases earlier.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter