Should I go for my smear?

Trust in the country’s CervicalCheck screening service has been severly damaged in recent weeks. If you got a letter inviting you to attend a smear, what would you do? asks ELAINE DUGGAN
Should I go for my smear?

BRAVE: Vicky Phelan, who is terminally ill. She was awarded €2.5 million damages over a wrong smear test result.

THE letter arrived, I had been expecting it, it was three years since my last free CervicalCheck screening test.

I pinned it to the door of the fridge, as a reminder to make the appointment with my GP. It’s one of those doctor visits every woman cringes at the thought of, but I’ve never missed one to-date and didn’t intend on ignoring this one.

That was just days before the name Vicky Phelan was even known to me. Or known to any woman, or man, in Ireland.

Let me say at the outset that my worries, troubles or concerns pale into total insignificance when I hear of her harrowing story, as well as the story of the other women who have been caught up in the cervical cancer scandal.

But worried I am... as I expect are the thousands of women who have used the CervicalCheck screening tests over the years. And not just those who have used the service, but those who are due to use it… like me.

You see, despite the scandal, I still booked myself in for a smear this week. When I unsealed the CervicalCheck screening envelope, sent to remind me of my appointment, my faith in the programme was a given. But now, a few weeks on, what was meant to be a routine appointment, aimed at helping reduce my risk of developing cervical cancer, has serious question marks over it.

Right now, I admit to not having full faith in the service.

And yet I still plan on partaking.

I am sure I am just like other women this week, or next week, or next month who are wondering what to do. There are still so many questions, in light of the horrendous scandal, whereby women had early cervical cancer signs which were missed in their smears. They subsequently went on to develop the cancer.

Why were women’s early cancer warning signs not detected through CervicalCheck’s screening programme? Why then were these women or their families not told of an audit of their cases, after they were diagnosed with cancer?

There is still a huge void of information out there and until all the questions are answered, how are we to have complete faith in this screening programme?

I contacted the National Screening Service outlining my concerns, not as a journalist, but as a woman, trying to decide whether to attend for her routine smear or not. Was there any point?

The service acknowledged my concern and referred me to a website, with further information. A bit of cold comfort, but not surprising given the scale of the scandal and subsequent public reaction — the health services, after all, have been inundated with queries from women seeking answers on many queries.

The website had lots of information but one of the key elements that stood out to me, as I sought out information to calm my worries, or replenish my trust in the scheme, was that CervicalCheck has carried out more than 3 million cervical screening tests in Ireland since 2008. More than 50,000 cases of pre-cancer and cancer have been detected and treated following cervical screening. That is a lot of lives saved.

But this disease is still a big killer of our mothers, our sisters, or friends, our daughters. Approximately 3,000 women In Ireland have been diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008.

They also say that CervicCheck is “safe and effective” and advise people “to continue your normal schedule of tests”. The note on the website also states: “If you already are due a smear test, you should still attend it as planned. Regular cervical screening is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of cervical cancer. It is very important to attend and keep up to date with your tests.”

But some of the women caught up in this scandal did just that. They went for their smears, they weren’t neglectful of their health. And yet some are now dead. Some are battling terminal illness. Some are facing into the biggest fight of their lives... for their lives. There are husbands left without wives, children left without mothers. Despite women keeping up to date with their tests.

On the question of screening reliability, the website said; “We know that cervical screening in Ireland is very reliable and effective. Over 50,000 cases of pre-cancer and cancer have been detected and treated. But, like most clinical tests and processes, they have a margin of error. No screening programme is 100% effective.

“This is the case in all countries and is factored into how screening programmes are designed. This is one of the reasons why we offer regular cervical screening tests. This kind of routine screening is the best way to be assured of cervical health.”

The cold black and white facts offered me a bit of reassurance, but not much, if I am totally honest. There will be plenty more questions for me to ask my GP, when I attend her clinic for the smear this week — top of this will be to ask, where is my smear being sent for analysis? To the same clinics which are going to be under investigation by the Irish government? How will I know the results are reliable? Do I need to have more regular smears, more regular than the three year check recommended and offered by CervicalCheck? Is there any possibility that the smears I presented for in the past ten years were inaccurate?

In all of this, one voice has stood strong, truthful and brave, that of terminally ill mum-of-two, Vicky Phelan. Despite the horrendous diagnosis, incompetencies, concealment of information — which we hope will be revealed in full in a statutory inquiry — she stands firm in her belief that women should still undergo a smear.

“What I don’t want happening is that people lose total faith in the system,” she said in an interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio 1.

“If there’s one point I can get across to women, I know at the moment there’s a lot of fear, but please don’t stop having smears.”

We’ve been listening to Vicky for the past two weeks — her voice, her story, her conviction — she continues to resonate with people.

Here’s hoping CervicalCheck can rebuild people’s faith in their service when there is full transparency into how this scandal occurred. In the meantime, let’s listen to Vicky and go for that smear.

SUPPORT CONTACTS:

Anyone with concerns about cervical cancer — be they going through the illness, or if they are a family member or friend of a cervical cancer patient — can receive confidential advice and support by contacting the Irish Cancer Society’s Freephone Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm). CervicalCheck Helpline: 1800 45 45 55.

EXTRA COUNSELLING SERVICES FOR CORK

THE Irish Cancer Society has provided funding for 500 additional counselling sessions for women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy.

Funds will be made available for the counselling at 25 Irish Cancer Society-affiliated Support Centres across the country, including ARC Cancer Support House in Cork, located at 5 O’Donovan Rossa Rd.

The Society has taken the step in response to the significant increase in the numbers of women seeking advice and support from the charity around CervicalCheck and their smear test results.

Donal Buggy, Head of Services and Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society, said: “Over the past few days we have received a huge number of queries from women who are very concerned by the revelations about CervicalCheck.

“Understandably, many women are deeply affected and need support, reassurance and practical help.

“Through our existing network across the country, we are making additional money for counselling available so women in Cork can get the support they so desperately need at this time.”

Nurses from the Irish Cancer Society will also be assisting in calling back women who have contacted the CervicalCheck helpline this week and are waiting for a response.

Mr Buggy added: “Women are out there worrying and waiting for a call back so they can have their concerns and worries addressed.

“We want to help reassure these women. Our panel of specialist cancer nurses will work with the CervicalCheck helpline to make sure as many of these women are contacted as soon as possible.”

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