Smear testing controversy just "tip of the iceberg" says Phelan

By Olivia Kelleher

The Cervical Check controversy could be just the "tip of the iceberg" according to Limerick woman, Vicky Phelan, who says that all of our screening programmes need to be looked at as soon as possible.

Speaking on Cork's Red FM Ms Phelan said that she would advise women to go for all of their smears and mammograms as they are vital. However, she admits she is worried about our cancer screening programmes in general in this country given what happened to her.

She has heard of cases of delayed detections in other forms of cancer and says that screening for all forms of the disease ought to be thoroughly examined.

Vicky has also encouraged women to go for private smears in addition to the Cervical Check programme.

"Please continue to go for smears. You can (also) pay for a private smear. I would encourage women to be honest to go more often. I think three years is too long. Pay for a private smear if you have any concerns.

"The thing to look out for in my case is bleeding between periods, dull lower back pain that doesn't go away and if you bleed after sex. If you bleed after sex 100% go to the doctor. What I don't want is women not going for smears. Cervical screening does save lives."

The mother of two, who lives in Annacotty, Co Limerick says that gagging and confidentiality orders following a delayed diagnosis should be illegal.

"Professor (John) Shepherd was on Morning Ireland or Drive Time and he said in the UK doctors are legally obliged to tell patients if a mistake has been made. There is full open disclosure and that is what we need in this country.

"Because of the legal nature of our country they (doctors) are scared stiff of being sued. But in all fairness as a doctor wouldn't you think you would have a moral and ethical obligation to tell your patients if you had made a mistake?"

Speaking on the Neil Prendeville show Ms Phelan said that gardai should be called in because her situation was covered up for so long. She stated that the system is ‘rotten to the core."

"I think it should be a criminal investigation at this stage because of the fact that it has been covered up for in my case three years. This is only the tip of the iceberg. They are talking about these 208 women at the moment that they are looking in to.

"The English Times has a headline today about the 1,500. Since the programme was established 1,500 women have been diagnosed with cervical cancer. I think all of those cases need to be looked at.

"The review was carried out internally by the same lab that carried out these smears so an external

review needs to be carried out on all 1,500 cases of women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer. Because I don't think that 208 figure is correct. I wouldn't trust it."

Ms Phelan said she worries that a tribunal would only lead to a silencing of questions and media reportage which would "suit the HSE." However, she stresses that if it is the only way to get criminal proceedings brought in she would "welcome it."

She insisted that individuals in the HSE should "consider their position."

"Do we ever see anybody at the very top of these organisations being pushed out? It just doesn't happen."

Vicky also expressed frustration that the US lab who carried out the testing in her case are still doing tests.

She said that she planned to continue to soldier on in her fight against the condition.

"I told her (my daughter) I am going to keep on fighting. I said that I took the court case for money to go on the treatments. I shouldn't have to spend all my money on treatments. I would rather spend it on treatments and be here."

Vicky told of the difficulties involved in the taking of the case and the resultant media coverage.

"It has been very hard. I had to think hard about the pro's and con's and I knew my family would suffer as a result of it because of the publicity. I thought I would be on the news for maybe a day or two after the case.

Never in a million years would I have dreamed that this would have led off such a scandal. I never expected this type of public attention. My kids said 'everyone was asking in school about you.'

"Both of them have been very upset because it is making it real for them. They knew I was sick but I have had cancer before and I have recovered."

Vicky said she isn't angry anymore and can't "do anger."

"You can't change it. You can't change that diagnosis. I wish I could and I wish I had a magic wand. Anger gets you nowhere. I know that from previous things that happened. We have had a lot of trauma in our lives.

"My daughter was very badly burned and actually spent six weeks in hospital in Cork. That was worse than any of this. She got very badly burned. A spark from the fire escaped and caught the back of her dress.

"I could see the fireball running in to the kitchen. That was worse than anything. They were years from hell and that was just the years before I was diagnosed with cancer.

"I have had a lot thrown at me in my life. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. As long as my kids are happy and I am here that is all I want. I want a normal life at home with my kids enjoying the small things. We only appreciate those when something bad happens you."

Vicky says a move to HPV testing is vital and should be fast-tracked. She claims the HSE "got off the hook" in terms of the settlement she received from her case.

"The lab were held solely responsible for misreading my smear and for my diagnosis and they paid out my settlement with no admission of liability."

During her sickness she had to fundraise for treatment because she didn't know how long the trial

would take.

"Most of these clinical trials cost a quarter of a million dollars upwards. I don't have that kind of money. The drugs I am on are nine thousand a shot."

Vicky also says she is amazed that the Director General of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, claims he only heard about the case from the media. She said she found that "hard to believe."

Ms Phelan said treatment for cervical cancer is very gruelling. One of her treatments included a radiation therapy which involves three epidurals in 10 days, and the insertion of an application up your vagina where rods are attached and they radiate what is left within your body.

"It is horrendous. It is a horrible cancer to get. I would encourage people to go for smears. Because you do not want to get it."

HIQA is set to investigate the controversy. They will also review other screening programmes to ensure that there are no similar issues. The HSE has said that it is working hard to restore confidence in the Cervical Check programme.


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