What Jessica Pettway’s Story Can Teach Black Women About Trusting Our Pain

Popular beauty influencer Jessica Pettway passed away due to cervical cancer at age 36 last month, according to E! Online. As a Black physician, wife, and mom, the news of Pettway’s passing deeply resonated with me, as does every tragic story that adds to the increase in mortality rates and dismissals of Black women in healthcare. Stories like hers and many others only serve to compound the already pervasive mistrust and trauma that Black women experience when seeking healthcare. It also underscores the importance of health screenings as well as women advocating for themselves, and not normalizing extreme pain or bleeding as something they have to “just deal with” or expect during their menstrual cycles or menopause.

In Pettway’s case, it was reported that she was originally diagnosed with fibroids after experiencing intense bleeding, fatigue, and according to her Instagram post, she just wasn’t feeling like herself. Concerned, she asked other women close to her if they had experienced similar symptoms. When most said yes, she concluded that what she was feeling was normal for women to go through.

In the same post, Pettway also revealed that for months she had been experiencing “labor like pains,” extreme blood loss, and numerous hospitalizations where she received blood transfusions and was misdiagnosed with fibroids. After undergoing an outpatient biopsy at the recommendation of her doctor, she was informed that she had stage 3 cervical cancer.

Pettway’s tragic story could have ended differently, had her concerns been taken seriously and the signs noted earlier.

Cervical Cancer: Silent Symptoms, Dismissed Signs

Cervical cancer affects thousands of women every year, according to the CDC. The disease occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Early stages of cervical cancer often have no symptoms, which is why regular exams and screenings are extremely important and are usually the only ways to detect the disease early. That’s especially true for those at higher risk, including Black women, who are 41 percent more likely to develop cervical cancer and 75 percent more likely to die from it, studies say.

As cervical cancer progresses, symptoms can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, pain during intercourse, bloating, and fatigue — all of which can be associated with menstrual periods and might be dismissed by women or explained away by their providers. These symptoms could also be present after a woman’s menstrual cycle and during menopause. Other conditions and diseases that affect women’s reproductive health include uterine fibroids, endometriosis, HPV, and endometrial cancer, which can present extreme pain and bleeding, silent symptoms, and impact fertility.

Remove Doubt, Trust Yourself

Women shouldn’t doubt themselves, thinking what they are experiencing is in all their heads, or feel they are complaining or bothering their doctors.

Don’t wait. Talk with a trusted healthcare provider to receive a full checkup, including a reproductive exam. If there is a sense of being dismissed by a clinician, express concern of not being heard. The provider may not be aware that they aren’t listening, which can impact the delivery of individual care and lead to increased inequities and disparities for women.

Pay attention to your health. It may be helpful to keep a health journal, documenting any abnormal symptoms or feelings that can be shared during a checkup. Monitoring your health status lets you determine the screenings appropriate for your age and current health condition. This proactive approach aids in maintaining your well-being and detecting potential issues early.

Seek a second opinion. If your concerns aren’t being addressed, your perspective isn’t being heard, or you’re uncertain about a diagnosis, seeking a second opinion is advisable. Prioritizing your health involves exploring different viewpoints to ensure you’re getting comprehensive consideration of all the factors affecting your well-being.

Your pain matters. Women, along with the healthcare community, cannot continue to socialize the notion that pain is normal. Both patients and providers have to look beyond their own biases to seek out and provide the best care possible, where patients are heard and providers are listening to patients and providing diagnoses based on the individual. When this doesn’t occur, there is serious risk of overlooking — or dismissing — critical pieces of information that could impact patient outcomes and lives. 

For women of color, keep up your confidence. Advocating for yourself as a woman of color presents even more significant obstacles due to entrenched biases and racism. The stereotype of the “angry Black woman” unfairly labels and discredits our legitimate health concerns, making it even more challenging to be taken seriously and believed each time we seek care. It’s crucial to maintain confidence in yourself and not let your health concerns be brushed aside or downplayed, even if you haven’t received a clear answer. Keep advocating for yourself and seeking solutions for your health issues. If you sense you’re not being heard, persist in finding someone who will listen, and consider engaging health equity advocates, such as family members or friends, to support you in expressing your concerns.

Advocating for yourself in a doctor’s office isn’t always easy, especially if your concerns have been dismissed in the past, but it could save your life. Ultimately, women’s health is an important part of public health, and it’s vital that we continue sharing experiences and stories, such as Pettway’s, to create awareness about cervical cancer and other diseases that are impacting women. As we explore these conversations together as a community, I urge everyone — women, the general public, and healthcare providers — to not accept ailments or pain as “normal” any longer.

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