An aspiring young model died of cervical cancer at the age of 27 just months after being told by a doctor that her hormones were simply to blame for her “myriad” of symptoms, an inquest heard.
Porsche ‘Pops’ McGregor-Sims had an “aggressive” form of the disease which had gone undiagnosed for months despite continual complaints of abdominal pain and bleeding.
The graduate passed away in hospital just a day after the cancer was discovered, having previously been told by the consultant that she didn’t need to be physically examined and her problems could be linked to ceasing birth control.
Only weeks before her death – as Britain entered the first coronavirus lockdown – she was prescribed antibiotics over the phone for her condition, the hearing was told.
She was seen by a doctor face by face only after the GP thought her shortness of breath meant she had Covid.
Her case has led a coroner to suggest national guidelines, which say women suspected of having the disease need to wait two weeks before being seen by a specialist, may have contributed to her death.
The inquest in Portsmouth, Hampshire, heard Miss McGregor-Sims – who was engaged to be married – underwent her first smear in 2017.
Although the test uncovered no cancerous cells, she was told some had been found to be “abnormal”, the inquest heard.
But despite this result, no further action was taken.
Two years later she started to complain of abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding and in December 2019 her GP referred her to see a consultant.
National guidelines mean the appointment cannot be any earlier than two weeks later – to see if symptoms subside and for further investigations to take place – and therefore, due to the Christmas period Miss McGregor-Sims wasn’t seen until late January.
She was then seen by Dr Peter Schlesinger, an agency locum doctor specialising in gynaecology, at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth.
Dr Schlesinger told the hearing he thought her symptoms were “hormonal” after she ceased her birth control injections around a year prior to her death.
He apologised to her family for failing to pick up her cancer.
He told the inquest: “Porsche had both bleeding between periods and post-coital bleeding (bleeding after intercourse).
“She also told me she had been on a contraceptive until around six months ago. She had had a normal smear test two years previously, and a scan [which showed] no abnormalities.
Alistair Toogood/Solent News)
“I felt there were a number of potential causes to her pain. In view of the fact she had stopped her birth control, I suggested she take it again to see if the pain stopped.
“In light of her normal smear test and her age, I didn’t think a vaginal examination was needed – there seemed to be no benefit.
“I was very sorry to hear she was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. This type of cancer is rare and is less likely to be picked up on smear tests.
“When I first qualified [in 1987] we examined everyone [physically], but since scans and smear tests have become available we do them less.”
McGregor-Sims’ mother Fiona Hawke, fiance Mark Chappel, and twin brother Deucalion questioned Dr Schlesinger’s practices during the inquest, asking why a physical examination didn’t take place.
Ms Hawke, 52, said: “You didn’t do the most basic, fundamental thing which is to give a [physical] examination.
“She was a young woman who was told she might have cancer. She was on her own and scared.
“You focused on her IBS ( Irritable Bowel Syndrome ) and a different type of bleeding…and that just doesn’t make sense to me.
“An internal examination is the most fundamental examination to do.”
Defending his actions, Dr Schlesinger replied: “The rather specific nature of her bleeding made me think her risk of cervical cancer was small.
“I appreciate the fact I was wrong, but given the myriad of symptoms this young woman had I felt the right approach was hormonal manipulation.”
After the country began lockdown at the end of March 2020, Miss McGregor-Sims had two phone consultations and was prescribed antibiotics after feeling “short of breath”.
When the antibiotics had no impact and her symptoms worsened, she was brought into Westlands Medical Centre in Portchester, near Portsmouth, for a face-to-face consultation.
She was found to be “severely” short of breath and was rushed to Queen Alexandra Hospital, where she died a day later on April 14 2020.
Dr Helen Pandya, representing Westlands Medical Centre, told the inquest: “The Covid pandemic really didn’t help during the latter stages but, upon review, we had thought we had done all we could – though we are willing to learn.”
The family also expressed concern at the delay between the GP referral and Miss McGregor-Sims seeing the consultant.
PA Archive/Press Association Images)
Area Coroner Rosamund Rhodes-Kemp said the guidelines doctors follow may also have been at fault for not diagnosing the cancer sooner.
She said: “Porsche had advanced cervical cancer which is usually slow-growing and, as with most cancers, the earlier the diagnosis the better the outcome on the whole.
“The only option was to do the priority referral. The two-week wait criteria is a national guideline. Four weeks [considering the Christmas break] is still quite fast.
“I think there is a structure they [doctors] have to adhere to. This structure may be at fault. [The doctors] were following national guidelines.”
Miss McGregor-Sims – who had done modelling shoots – had studied drama at Havant and South Downs College in Hampshire before going to Plymouth University to study Events Management.
She met fiance Mark Chappel whilst at university, and the pair moved back to Portsmouth after finishing their studies.
Ms Hawke, paid tribute to her daughter shortly after her death, saying losing her was like “having the sun burn out”.
She said: “Porsche always had a sense of joy and vibrancy about her – she shined so brightly and I don’t think we really appreciated that until we heard she was gone.
“She was willing to see the good in everything and everyone, she was a lovely person and losing her is like having the sun burn out.
“It’s frightening to think that someone with so much energy can disappear so suddenly.”
She also had strong connections to Titchfield Festival Theatre, Hants, and her twin brother Deucalion is still involved with the theatre.
“She always enjoyed her drama,” mum Fiona said.
“A love of arts tends to run in the family so she was passionate about it. But she loved her work organising events and liked cooking as well.
“The number of people she reached in her short life is the best reflection of who she was.
“We’re all going to miss her.”
More than 200 people donated nearly £4,000 to a Just Giving page to contribute to flowers which were woven into Porsche’s coffin for her funeral.
She was buried at Sustainability Centre’s natural burial ground in Petersfield, Hants.
The inquest was adjourned and its conclusion will be heard at a later date.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.