By Conor Kane
Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan has said she believes she would now be dead or close to death had she taken medical advice to undergo palliative chemotherapy rather than carrying out her own research into new treatment.
Ms Phelan said that her treatment with "wonder drug" Pembrolizumab has resulted in another small shrinkage in her cervical cancer tumours, following shrinkage of over 50% after she started the therapy.
"It's quite minimal but it's what you want to see," she said today at Waterford Institute of Technology, where she was conferred with an honorary fellowship.
"I'm happy enough to live with tumours, as long as they're not growing. I have a quality of life."
WIT's governing body confers its highest honour on those who have demonstrated distinction in a field of human endeavour, that motivates and inspires the community of the institute and society at large.
Vicky, who lives in Limerick with her husband and children, is employed as the Head of the Literacy Development Centre at WIT.
The CerivalCheck campaigner has been working at the institute since 2006.
Speaking to WLR, Vicky said her work there helps adults who have been failed by the education system.
She said: "I suppose where I work we work with people who are training adult literacy tutors, so with adult education, we are going out into the community to teach adults with literacy difficulties.
"So, I suppose for me what I have done with the health service is really just an extension of what I do here. We have been dealing with marginalised learners, people who have been failed by the education system.
"So I've just moved that to people who have been failed by the medical system."
She said she wants women to continue attending their GPs for smear tests and also spoke of the importance of the HPV vaccine for preventing a range of cancers, including cervical cancer, using the example of her 13-year-old daughter who has just been given the vaccine.
"I don't want her getting cervical cancer," she said. "I was driven all along by the fact that at the beginning I thought I was going to die. I don't think that's the case now, I hope not anyway, definitely not for another while."
Vicky Phelan settled a case against Clinical Laboratories Inc earlier this year over an incorrectly-read smear test which was taken three years before she was eventually diagnosed with cervical cancer and six years before she was told her smear had been reviewed.
She spoke at WIT of the importance of education and of people having the ability and confidence to challenge what they are told by people such as medical professionals.
"What I was offered in January was palliative chemotherapy... The palliative chemotherapy is killing people, it's so toxic."
She instead researched other possibilities and found the new drug, Pembrolizumab, which she started against much medical advice, in April.
"I was given six months if I didn't get their treatment. I got on it [Pembrolizumab] just in time. The palliative chemotherapy would have only bought me until the end of the year, which is now coming up, and I would have been sick.
"I have spoken to women who are on this treatment and they are in and out of hospital all the time, with infection after infection.
"It's not curing anybody, it's making you sick, it's depleting your immune system, and it's not buying you time. And this is all they can offer, I don't believe that is right."
She wants all possible patients who could benefit from the same drug to be given a test which shows if they are suitable for it or not, and then to have the treatment funded by the Government.
Ms Phelan is now funding a research position which will have somebody working for patients from the main cancer hospitals, to look into possible treatment options for those patients. Money donated to her via a GoFundMe campaign will help pay for this position but she hopes the Government will also eventually fund such roles.
"There needs to be a sea-change in the attitude of our medical professionals, to be honest," she said. "They need to listen to their patients and that's why we need more patient advocates across the board."
She described as "an awful indictment of our country" the fact she had to do her own research into possible treatments as an alternative to palliative chemotherapy.
Ms Phelan said being honoured with a fellowship at WIT was "the pinnacle" for her, because of her love of learning and education.