Vicky wanted Irish women’s health moved up the agenda. Now her story has made the New York Times
A botched cancer test. A national scandal, and an Irish hero – this is the headline from the New York Times which this week paid tribute to the remarkable story of cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan. The 48-year-old passed away on Monday
at Milford Hospice near her home in Limerick after a number of years fighting to get her voice and those of other Irish women heard.
Vicky changed the conversation around cancer screening after exposing the CervicalCheck scandal back in 2018, leaving behind an incredible legacy.
In its opening paragraph, the paper, which has nine million news subscribers, wrote about Ireland’s collective mourning for Phelan. “She became an advocate for women after a Pap smear that had been deemed negative turned out to be positive.”
Mum-of-two Phelan had undergone a smear test in 2011 showing no abnormalities, before her diagnosis three years later. After discovering she had been given incorrect rest results and then not told, she then exposed the CervicalCheck screening scandal in Ireland.
Virgin Media journalist Zara King interviewed Phelan a year ago about how the issue first unfolded. She spoke about that moment her life changed dramatically.
“That’s when I thought, ah here now, there’s something fishy going on here now. I just didn’t like the sound of it.”
“Myself and my mother were in the waiting room, waiting for biopsy. My medical file was on my lap. I said to myself, I may as well start looking through this as you do, well, as I do anyway. And I was reading all the letters. Then I suddenly saw this letter from Cervical Screening program.
It was so clinical and it was so… there was even a little paragraph at the end of it and it said, you know…your 2011 smear result, original result no abnormalities detected. And then, on review; query Squamous cell carcinoma, that’s the cancer I have, and I said Jesus, that means I had cancer.
And at the end of it then it said, basically the legal speak about how to tell the patient, and whether or not to tell the patient. That’s when I thought, ah here now, there’s something fishy going on here now. I just didn’t like the sound of it. And the fact that I’d never been shown this letter. At all.”
Phelan went on to fight to set up an inquiry into what happened to all the women affected by the botched CervicalCheck results.
The final report, carried out by Dr Gabriel Scally landed like a bombshell that forced official Ireland to stand up. Rather than blame individuals, Vicky and those who worked with her wanted to get the truth, and for people to say sorry.
The most important aspect of the report was the 50 recommendations for reform and getting those recommendations implemented. And while a lot of work has been done, there are still some issues outstanding such as mandatory open disclosure.
But ultimately Vicky wanted women’s health to be moved up the agenda and to be taken seriously and given the power and information they need to look after their own healthcare. While she championed the screening process, she encouraged women not to always trust the first answer you get.
Last night, RTE viewers took to social media to describe their heartbreak over Phelans’ death. The Late Late show dedicated the show to the campaigner with interviews, videos and discussions on her life and her legacy.
One viewer tweeted: “This Vicky Phelan tribute has me in bits already #LateLateShow.” Another said: “A lovely tribute to a remarkable lady. So sad that all of this could have been avoided”
Perhaps now that her story has had such a wide impact, other tragedies will also be prevented.