New York – September is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. The disease mostly affects older women, but one young Harlem woman has found hope in helping others cope.
Amanda Fitzpatrick regularly checks in with her oncologist at Mount Sinai as she approaches three years without her uterus. At age 26, she developed the most common gynecologic cancer, which often goes undetected.
“Any abnormal bleeding needs attention,” emphasizes Dr. Stephanie Blank, director of gynecologic oncology at Mount Sinai.
Blank’s department works to understand and break down disparities in race and age outcomes.
“Our national society guidelines say you shouldn’t biopsy people under 45 unless they have strong risk factors like obesity or a genetic predisposition to cancer,” Blank said. “If you follow the guidelines, you may miss a diagnosis like this.”
Fitzpatrick went to the emergency room when she started bleeding uncontrollably. A doctor prescribed her pills, but Fitzpatrick did a biopsy.
“It was so important that he advocated for himself,” Blank said. “She knew something wasn’t right.”
Although considered among the most curable cancers, CDC reports show that the number of cases and deaths from cervical cancer continues to rise across the country. New York has the second highest case rate and the fourth highest death rate.
Black women die twice as often as white women.
“It’s even when people are seeing the right doctors, they’re still not getting the right care,” Blank clarifies. “So there are all these underlying structural issues that are getting in the way of people getting really great results.”
Through a dedicated plan, all traces of Fitzpatrick’s cancer disappeared within the first year of his diagnosis. The cancer returned five years later.
“She’s like, we had to do a hysterectomy, like, it’s really serious,” Fitzpatrick recalled hearing over the phone.
A sonogram showed progress as the cancer was removed from her uterus. Single and childless, Fitzpatrick felt his world change.
“I have to do this new life and this new journey with no uterus and hot flashes and menopause and everything, and how am I going to live?” Fitzpatrick asked himself. “And it took a long time to accept.”
Doctors stored and froze Fitzpatrick’s eggs for an insured future and referred her to Mount Sinai’s Woman to Woman Support Group for gynecologic cancer patients.
“Everyone here looks like they’re in retirement age and I’m not fit,” Fitzpatrick recalls thinking.
Fitzpatrick created her own group, “You’re Too Young for This,” hosting beauty days and pizza parties for gynecologic cancer survivors her age.
“I love them,” Fitzpatrick said of his new friends. “I can speak because of this group.”
Talking and destigmatizing symptoms addresses some systemic barriers to care. Mount Sinai tries to reach out to its neighbors in Harlem, and Blank encourages researchers to purposefully diversify clinical trials.
“When you work in a community that has a lot of black people, you have to think about what the community needs,” Blank said.
The cause of uterine cancer remains unknown. Research aims to advance, while statistics slide. The human factor can make the biggest difference.
For gynecological cancer support and resources, click here.
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