2018: The year of the Cervical Cancer scandal

One of the biggest stories of 2018 was the Cervical Cancer scandal. ELAINE DUGGAN reflects on the courage of women and their families involved
2018: The year of the Cervical Cancer scandal
Vicky Phelan speaking to the media outside the gates of Leinster House(The Dail) on the need for Pembro to be made available to all women being treated for cervical cancer. Photo: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

THE two beautiful, funny, clever, radiant women pictured here in this feature had everything to live for.

One, Vicky Phelan, continues her battle with cervical cancer as 2018 draws to a close.

The other, Emma Mhic Mhathuna, didn’t live to see the dawn of 2019 — leaving behind her five children. She was aged just 37.

During 2018 both women spoke out publicly about the Cervical Cancer Scandal — about their cancer diagnosis, following incorrect smear test results. They were just two of many.

The women of Ireland owe them a great deal. I hope they know the depths of our appreciation and the legacy that they have created.

Emma died in October and while terminally ill she had not only fought for a €7.5 million settlement for her children, she had also campaigned for better healthcare for the women of Ireland. She had received not one, but two incorrect smear test results.

After her death her family released a statement, in which they said: “Emma’s unending and unwavering commitment to her children means that her abiding legacy will be that of a great mother.

“However, Emma will also be remembered as someone who fought for social justice in an exceptionally selfless way during times of great personal challenge.”

Vicky continues to campaign for the 221+ women and their families who have been affected by the scandal. Others continue to speak out too, such as Lorraine Walsh, Stephen Teap, Carol Murray and many more.

Vicky was diagnosed with cancer three years after her smear test results of 2011 were incorrectly reported as clear of abnormalities. Since then it has emerged that more 200 women with cervical cancer should have received treatment earlier than they did.

Vicky did not sign a non-disclosure agreement in her court case, which allowed her to speak out publicly.

She has not only campaigned for justice for herself, but others affected too — and even beyond that — women who are battling cervical cancer, outside this scandal.

Just last week she posted on Twitter that she had received “the best Christmas present I could get this year,” when news broke that the government is looking at giving cervical cancer patients, who are clinically suitable, the drug Pembro, which Vicky credits with saving her life.

Emma Mhic Mhathúna a victim of the CervicalCheck scandal who died in October.Photo By Domnick Walsh © Eye Focus LTD - 
Emma Mhic Mhathúna a victim of the CervicalCheck scandal who died in October.Photo By Domnick Walsh © Eye Focus LTD - 

The pain and suffering of the women and families caught up in the scandal has been well documented in the media — but how many of us will truly, fully understand what life has been like for them?

The Scally report, published in September — which found a ‘whole system failure’ — gives us a small insight, with women saying: “This has ruined many lives and has caused pain and suffering that can never be reversed.”

“The dread, panic and memories this has brought up have been quite difficult to deal with... and I’ve been faced once again with taking time off work to manage my mental health.”

“I think there is a history of looking at women’s health services as being secondary.”

Are there any positives to be taken from this scandal? Hardly, when women have died and continue to die, you may think.

On the one hand the scandal shattered people’s belief and confidence in the Cervical Check screening programme, but on the other hand it reminded us of the importance of regular smear tests.

There has also been an increased uptake in the HPV vaccine — which the government recently announced is to now be extended to teenage boys. There are hopes that the disease which is responsible for some cervical cancers, will be eradicated in the future in Ireland as a result of the vaccination programme.

The scandal has reminded women also that they need to be vigilant of their health. How often do we rush around, taking care of everyone else in the family, putting our own health secondary?

It also reminded health professionals of the importance of communication with their patients. Hopefully, gone are the days when important details of women’s health are kept from them.

Remember how The Scally Report also described the treatment of women as ‘bordered on misogynism’?

It would be great if we could draw a line under this scandal as 2018 comes to an end. But this is sadly an issue that we carry into 2019. I just hope the women caught up in this scandal will still be here next year, that they continue their fight, for health and also for justice, and that they will be here with us for many, many years after that.

And when the families speak out, as I am sure they will, we must listen.... as our government must too.

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