The doctor looks like he’s potholing, peering through the speculum. He tells me he can’t find my cervix.
Really, I think it must be there somewhere; it’s hardly the Panama Canal. I’m looking at my stripy socks and trying to astral travel in my head, wanting to be anywhere but here, in these stirrups of shame. My silent mantra, “let this be over”, the smear, something we all want to get out of the way.
Ten years ago I left that surgery with abnormal cells on my cervix, thankfully they were detected and I had Lletz procedure to remove them. I was lucky. We in Ireland are lucky. Most developing countries have little or no screening and it is a leading cause of cancer related death. Worldwide it’s the third-most common cancer in women. Vigilance is therefore needed and these days I am reassuringly called for a yearly smear.
My nurse is lovely, calming, (she’s seen everything), I feel no embarrassment whatsoever and it’s a quick procedure, albeit with occasional discomfort. I consider it a necessity of life, like the dentist or the NCT and whilst it’s not something I relish, I appreciate the inherent value of Cervical Check despite ongoing revelations of its catastrophic failings.
Last week the grave news emerged, that Vicky Phelans 2011 smear test was incorrectly reported as clear of abnormalities. By the time of her next smear test in 2014, she had cervical cancer. The high court has just awarded her a 2.5 million settlement. In January this year she was given six to 12 months to live. Sadly she is not alone in this appalling injustice.
At yesterday’s press conference the HSE confirmed that 17 of the 208 women similarly affected had already died. It’s a grim and deeply unsettling story, understandably causing widespread panic. Admittedly this neglect makes me a little nervous and such an unwelcome announcement will do little to assuage the fears of the nearly 20% of women who already do not attend routine smears, for whatever reason.
But we must not ignore that since its establishment in 2008, Cervical Check has provided 3 million cervical screenings to 1.5 million women. It has detected over 50,000 pre-cancerous changes in women, reducing their cervical cancer risk by 90%, and detecting over 1,200 cancers. These are good stats even if we are now somewhat unsure of their absolute veracity.
Cervical Check are at pains to reassure women that along with the HPV vaccine, regular cervical screening is the most effective way to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. This is true, but there has been a massive breach of trust to Ms Phelan, others affected and the women of Ireland. There will now be an investigation in to the Cervical Check programme. Meanwhile the magnitude of this problem is still being revealed, with personal tragedy’s unfolding.
Confidence and trust needs to be restored, and quickly. Minister for Health Simon Harris has announced that repeat cervical screenings will be available for anyone with concerns who wishes to have a repeat test. If you are due a smear or in need of reassurance go ahead make your appointment today, do not put it off. I’ll leave the last word with the articulate, selfless and infinitely brave Vicky Phelan, “please, don’t stop having smears”.
Cervical Check can be contacted on 1800 454555.