Taking a new direction as a cervical cancer campaigner, Vicky Phelan is guest editor of tomorrow’s Feelgood magazine, writes Irene Feighan, Feelgood Editor
“I grabbed the opportunity with both hands,” she writes in her introduction to the weekly health and lifestyle magazine.
To mark International Women’s Day, she is determined to get the message out about the importance of getting a five-minute smear test so that this “awful, awful disease” can be detected and treated at the earliest stages. Other topics explored include the need for boys and girls to take up the free HPV vaccination in schools.
In time we can expect to have a zero incidence of the potentially deadly virus, she says. “Australia will be the first country to eradicate cervical cancer within the next 20 years. There is no reason why we cannot follow its lead.”
At no point does she flinch from the truth and trauma of invasive treatment. Like many women with advanced cervical cancer, Vicky received brachytherapy, or internal radiation. The long-term consequences are devastating for the women and their partners. Penetrative sex for many is almost impossible due to the pain and shortening and narrowing of the vagina. Vicky reveals she has not been able to have sex since she received brachytherapy three years ago. “We tried once or twice... I bled both times and I was in agony for days,” she says.
In this week’s edition, she is joined by five women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, who talk about the shock of being diagnosed with cancer and the gruelling treatment they underwent. The youngest, Orla O’Connor, from Douglas, Cork, put off her CervicalCheck appointment for a year until her GP asked why she hadn’t had a smear test.
While campaigning for a better cervical screening service, Vicky has been supported by Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died aged 37 in 2017 following two false negative smear test results, and Lorraine Walsh who has been unable to have children with her husband Gary due to cervical cancer.
Following a recent week-long stay in hospital for a virus, Vicky said she was stepping back from an active campaigning role so she could focus on her health and her children — Amelia, 13 and Darragh, 8. “I need to prioritise my health and my family above all else,” she wrote.
She knows all too well how having a parent with a serious illness can affect children. And so the special edition of Feelgood features the work of Climb, a programme that sensitively supports children with a family member who has cancer.
We also feature another warrior woman, Adrienne Cullen took on the Dutch medical system before dying, aged 58, as a result of cervical cancer on December 31. Her husband Peter Cluskey writes about her battle to introduce open disclosure in the Netherlands following the failure of one of its hospitals to diagnose her condition. “Adrienne walked into an ultra-modern Dutch university hospital to see if it could treat a nagging illness. Instead, the negligence of the hospital left her terminally ill,” he writes.
If readers gain anything from tomorrow’s Feelgood it’s to be convinced of the need to get a smear test, says Vicky. “It could save your life.”
Feelgood, guest edited by Vicky Phelan, is in tomorrow’s Irish Examiner.