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Image / Agenda / Breaking Stories

Thank you, Vicky Phelan. A million times thank you


By Sarah Finnan
14th Nov 2022
Thank you, Vicky Phelan. A million times thank you

Vicky Phelan passed away in the early hours of this morning, at the age of 48. Surrounded by friends and family at Milford Hospice in Co Limerick, she left this life enveloped by love. But this country failed her. 

Inspiring, courageous, resilient; those are but a few of the adjectives that come to mind when I hear the name Vicky Phelan. A woman who spent the best part of the last few years fighting for justice – despite her own devastating cervical cancer diagnosis – Vicky single-handedly changed the course of women’s healthcare in this country and Irish women will forever be indebted to her… thank you just doesn’t seem like enough.

The timeline

Established in Ireland in 2008, CervicalCheck was set up to provide free smear testing for women aged 25-60 as a “quality-assured, organised and population-based screening programme”. However, a retrospective audit of cervical cancer screenings showed that 221 women’s smear test readings had missed abnormalities leading to the development of cervical cancer. The results of this audit were not disclosed to 162 of these women, many of whom have since died.

Diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer in 2014 – three years after receiving an incorrect smear test result that failed to detect any abnormalities – Vicky was responsible for helping to unearth one of the biggest medical and political scandals of our times.

In 2018, she pursued legal action against the HSE and the US lab Clinical Pathology Laboratories (CPL) who was involved in the screening after discovering that she had not been told about her incorrect smear test results. She refused to sign a confidentiality clause as she wanted other women affected by the CervicalCheck audit to know the truth. Her case was brought before the High Court as a result, and mere weeks later, she settled the case for €2.5million… without admission of liability from CPL.

A broken service

The Scally Independent investigation was subsequently launched to investigate the controversy, with the report concluding that there were “serious gaps in the range of expertise of professional and managerial staff directly engaged in the operation of CervicalCheck” and that a “whole-system failure” was at fault.

That July, Vicky established the 221+ support group together with fellow survivor Lorraine Walsh and Stephen Teap (whose late wife Irene died from the disease) and one year later, then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a formal State apology to the women of Ireland and their families.

“Today’s apology is offered to all the people the State let down. And to the families who paid the price for those failings,” Vardkar said at the time. “A broken service, broken promises, broken lives; a debacle that left a country heartbroken, a system that was doomed to fail.”

Over the course of the next few years, Vicky travelled back and forth from the US for treatment – subjecting her body to clinical trials, surgery and chemotherapy, in the hopes of slowing the disease; of buying herself more time. Last year, she returned to Ireland for palliative chemotherapy and to be with her husband and two children.

Action, change, accountability

Awarded the Freedom of Limerick earlier this year and previously named as one of the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women around the world, Vicky has touched countless lives with her strength. In the words of Averil Power, CEO of the Irish Cancer Society, “it is no small understatement to say we are poorer for the loss of Vicky Phelan, but truly richer as a nation for the contribution she so generously made to Irish life.”

Refusing to be silenced and changing the course of history for Irish women in the process, she exemplified what one person can achieve when they use their voice for the greater good. As Vicky herself said in a powerful address on the steps of the Four Courts, “I don’t want your apologies. I don’t want your tributes. I don’t want your aide de camp at my funeral. I don’t want your accolades or your broken promises. I want action. I want change. I want accountability.”

Mother, daughter, sister, friend; thank you Vicky Phelan. A million times thank you.