Surgeon Ana Tergas has seen firsthand how the HPV vaccine and regular gynecological screenings can save lives
The memory still haunts her.
Surgeon Ana Tergas, MD, MPH, fights back tears as she remembers her first OB-GYN patient in medical school: a Latina woman in her early 30s with advanced cervical cancer. The patient, who comes from a disadvantaged community, had never received the HPV vaccine and was never screened regularly like the Pap smear. She was dying.
“I spent a lot of time with her, got to know her family and we became very close,” Tergas recalls. “It hit me hard when she passed away. She didn’t have to die.”
Tergas realized, and has written passionately ever since, that every case of cervical cancer is a failure of the medical system, because vaccines and screenings make this disease highly preventable. But only if those essential tools are made equally available to everyone. And they are not.
The experience was a turning point for Tergas. She was well on her way to becoming a top gynecologic oncology surgeon. She took to it on its own, rushing to the operating room almost immediately and staying there ’till all hours of the night, excited by the idea of using my hands for creative problem solving. I fell in love with it!”
But losing that patient changed things. It would no longer be enough to treat patients one at a time. Tergas decided to make a difference on a larger scale by fighting for the elimination of health inequalities, especially in the Latinx community, and especially related to cervical cancer.
In a short time Tergas found himself in places like Honduras, El Salvador, Guyana and Indonesia, learning and serving. She spent eight years at Columbia University in New York, where she spoke in Spanish to her patients, 90% of whom were from the Dominican Republic.
Along the way, she has amassed a formidable portfolio of research, conducted studies and published articles exposing everything from the lack of OB-GYN specialists in rural areas to the unique and maddening discrimination faced by members of the LGBTQ community in need of gynecological care. She even took to Twitter to protest the closure of the OB-GYN ward of a major hospital in a largely African-American area of Brooklyn, New York.
People started to hear her voice.
‘She’s going to fix it’
“She’s extremely intelligent and organized, very well-balanced,” says Lorna Rodriguez-Rodriguez, MD, Ph.D., City of Hope’s vice chair of faculty development and professor in the Department of Gynecological Oncology, Department of Surgery. It was Rodriguez-Rodriguez who heard about Tergas and recruited her to City of Hope in 2021, impressed by the young surgeon’s leadership skills and her passionate mission.
“I really think she will contribute to the survival of Latinx women with cervical cancer,” she continued. “I don’t doubt. She’s going to fix it!”
Sounds like a pretty big assignment, but Tergas dived in. She recently received a Young Investigator Award from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Her project, “Genetic Ancestry, Cervical Cancer Outcomes, and Prevalence of Homologous DNA Repair Deficiency in a Diverse Multiethnic Population,” she hopes, will fill some important gaps.
“We are entering an era of precision medicine fueled by genomics,” she explained, “and we don’t have enough knowledge of cervical cancer genomics. This is an opportunity to learn more.” The genetic lineage component is important, she says, because the old classifications just don’t work anymore.
“We are handicapped using traditional models of racial and ethnic categories,” she explained, citing herself as an example. ‘My father is from Cuba, my mother from Honduras. Based on my appearance, sometimes I could be classified as black, sometimes as white.”
Tergas was also selected by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities as a Research Institute Scholar. In addition, she chairs health equity and inclusion committees for the Society of Gynecologic Oncology.
An advocate for the voiceless
“Dr. Tergas is a brilliant, empathetic surgeon-scientist who aims to improve the health of marginalized groups,” says fellow surgeon and friend Loretta Erhunmwunsee, MD. “She is an advocate for those who have no voice.”
“Dr. Tergas is an exceptionally creative and visionary scientist,” agrees friend and colleague Victoria Seewaldt, MD, Ruth Ziegler Chair in Population Sciences. “She brings a vision of inclusiveness, courage to ask the tough questions and the ability to create unity.”
Stacey Wayne knew nothing about Tergas’ activism and extracurricular activities when they first met in March 2022. She’s just thankful for the surgeon who saved her life.
Wayne, a recording studio administrator from Hollywood, California, had to undergo surgery for a cancerous tumor on her uterus. Bad experiences with her local doctors had left her frustrated and terrified. Tergas, she says, was different.
“Dr. Ana was so calm, so peaceful and sweet,” Wayne recalls. “She didn’t say anything negative for half an hour, she just asked how I felt. She didn’t scare me. She didn’t scare this scared person! told me was very simple: ‘We’re going to sort this out and you’ll be fine.’
“From that day on, I felt calm and optimistic. I was relieved that she was a young woman, on the cutting edge, and I knew that if anyone can handle this, it’s her and City of Hope.”
The operation went well. Wayne is now on chemotherapy to get rid of any lingering cancer cells. And Tergas remains involved in Wayne’s care, which is typical of the “longitudinal” relationship she prefers: staying with the patient from day one, through diagnosis, surgery, recovery and follow-up treatment. “And the conversations are always positive!” says Wayne. Out of gratitude, she bought Tergas a pair of earrings. “And on our next telehealth visit, she wore them!”
That kind of gesture is typical of Tergas, who nurtures her relationships with her gynecologic oncology patients, “because you take full ownership,” she explained, “helping the patient and her family, with all your skills. Nothing really compares.”
At City of Hope for about a year now, Tergas loves her multiple roles: surgeon, researcher, inclusion activist. She commends Rodriguez-Rodriguez for guiding her in all these matters.
“Lorna is a great role model,” Tergas says. “She is a legend in the field.”
The boss gets the last word.
“I want three more of hers!” Rodriguez-Rodriguez said.