Amber Ebanks hero image


Young Cervical Cancer Patient is a Success Story

At 26, Amber Ebanks was a wife and mother of two. She worked as a medical assistant and enjoyed going to the park with her husband and kids, watching her son play basketball and her daughter learn gymnastics. It was 2021, and like everyone, the family was shouldering through the COVID-19 pandemic.


Then Ms. Ebanks noticed an odd vaginal discharge. In December of 2021, she had her intrauterine birth control device removed, thinking that it was causing an infection. But when persistent bleeding began, she felt it could be something serious.


While she wanted to believe her issue wasn’t anything more than an infection or a hormonal imbalance, Ms. Ebanks knew her body. And she was correct. Memorial Day weekend, 2022, she went to the Baptist Hospital Emergency Center. She had a life-threatening disease ― cervical cancer.


“Amber was diagnosed with stage 3C1r cervical cancer, which meant that it was metastatic disease, spreading to nearby lymph nodes,” explains gynecologic oncologist Troy Gatcliffe, M.D., at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute. “This was locally advanced disease.” Her cancer had likely reached the advanced stage because of a lack of regular screenings and the fact that she had been dismissed by other caregivers.



Troy Gatcliffe, M.D., gynecologic oncologist with Miami Cancer Institute



“While it’s not hugely typical for a younger woman to get cervical cancer, unfortunately we do see it,” Dr. Gatcliffe says. “Abnormal bleeding is a general symptom of so many other gynecological problems, and when you are young and of reproductive age, sometimes periods can be irregular and stressors in life can affect your period. We often see similar bleeding symptoms in women with uterine fibroids or polycystic ovary syndrome or other hormone dysfunctions.”


Some 14,000 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year in the U.S. Any woman can get cervical cancer, although it is most frequently found in women aged 35-44, according to the American Cancer Society. Risk factors include being infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV), having multiple sex partners, being sexually active at a young age, being exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) and smoking. Often called a silent killer because there are few symptoms until the cancer is more advanced, those who do have warning signs may wait before seeking care because their symptoms are vague.


When Ms. Ebanks experienced fatigue so debilitating that her heartbeat soared with little to no exertion and she felt as if she was going to collapse, her mother rushed her to the ER. Her hemoglobin was dangerously low due to blood loss over time.


Tests revealed a mass in the cervix and enlarged lymph nodes. A biopsy and PET scan confirmed the worst. “Dr. Gatcliffe said that I had stage 3 cancer, and I just cried and cried,” she recalls. “You think about how you see cancer portrayed in the movies. I was ignorant about the help that was available, but he explained everything so well that I really had no questions. I felt totally comfortable with what was going to happen.”


Treatment included chemotherapy, external beam radiation therapy (or conventional X-ray therapy) and brachytherapy (when a device placed in the uterus near the cervix delivers internal radiation) to kill the cancer cells. But first, Dr. Gatcliffe performed a procedure to protect the ovaries.


“In a young woman we want to preserve ovarian function so that they don’t go through premature menopause, and to protect their eggs in case they wish to have biological children later using a surrogate,” he says. “Ovarian transposition involves moving the ovaries into the upper abdomen, hopefully taking them out of the radiation field, and anchoring them in place with sutures.”


Following the procedure, Ms. Ebanks underwent 25 sessions of traditional radiation therapy, one each day Monday through Friday for about five weeks. During the external X-ray treatment, she also received a chemotherapy drug weekly, which makes the cancer cells more susceptible to radiation. Five sessions of brachytherapy, which required an overnight hospital stay, followed.


“The support from the staff was wonderful and they really became like family,” says the Homestead woman. “I had very few side effects. A little nausea and diarrhea from the chemo but really nothing other than a little skin sensitivity from the radiation.”


Ms. Ebanks, who will turn 28 in April, completed treatment on August 29, 2022. Today she is considered cancer-free. “My life felt like it was falling apart when I was sick,” she says. “Now it feels like life is good again. My kids are healthy, I got a promotion at work when I came back and I am enjoying doing everything with my family again.”


She will continue to be seen by Dr. Gatcliffe every three months over the next two years and have regular pelvic exams and periodic imaging scans. In addition, Ms. Ebanks is aware of the long-term side effects that can come with radiation treatment, including inflammation of the bladder and colon, and tissue damage to the vagina and genitalia that can cause sexual dysfunction. Miami Cancer Institute offers education and services for patients experiencing these problems.


“Amber is a success story,” Dr. Gatcliffe says. “She has a very good prognosis.”


Dr. Gatcliffe is optimistic, too, about promising new cervical cancer treatments on the horizon. Yet he stresses that cervical cancer could largely be eradicated if everyone was vaccinated against HPV, which is responsible for some 93 percent of cervical cancers.


In addition, early detection of cervical cancer is key to survival. Dr. Gatcliffe urges all women, even those who don’t have a sexual partner or those who are elderly, to speak to their family physician or gynecologist about the appropriate Pap smear schedule for them, and HPV screening. “The big message is prevention, prevention, prevention,” he says.


For more information about Miami Cancer Institute’s gynecologic cancer program, click here.


Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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