Vicky Phelan (guest editor): 'My aim is to raise awareness about the devastation of cervical cancer'

Vicky Phelan Photo: Cathal Noonan.

When I was approached by the Irish Examiner to guest edit a cervical cancer special edition of Feelgood on International Women’s Day, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands, writes Vicky Phelan.

As the woman who exposed the CervicalCheck debacle, I have been contacted by women and families from across the country with horror stories of possible misdiagnoses and stories of devastating loss — the loss of the opportunity to have a family, the loss of enjoyment of a healthy sex life, the loss of a sense of being a woman. As one survivor put it, cervical cancer has “ripped the soul out of us”.

What I hope to achieve with this edition is to provide a space for women with a cervical cancer diagnosis to feel understood and supported. For everyone else, my aim is to raise awareness about the devastation cervical cancer leaves in its wake and to convince some of you to ensure your children — boys and girls — are vaccinated against this awful, awful disease.

Since my story broke last year, I have been vocal in advising women to continue going for smears as I do not want to see more being diagnosed with this disease. Overleaf, you will hear from five women, of various ages, whose lives have been saved by a smear test.

For those of us who are living with advanced cervical cancer, there is no cure for this disease and so we are faced with the unknown, trying out new cancer drugs, such as the one I am currently on, Pembrolizumab. It has been making headlines recently as it is not being made available to all women living with advanced cervical cancer.

In the article covering this lifesaving immunotherapy, we hope to dispel some of the myths about this drug and why it should be made available to the women who urgently need it.

The next section will look at the HPV vaccine and why it is essential for boys and girls to get the jab in order to eradicate cervical cancer. You will hear from experts in the area as well as from two students who submitted a project on the HPV vaccine for the 2019 BT Young Scientist Exhibition which reveals that almost one in four parents surveyed did not or will not have their children vaccinated.

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.

Patient advocates Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died of cervical cancer in 2017, leaving behind two young children, and Lorraine Walsh, who has been unable to have a much-wanted family with her husband Gary as result of a cervical cancer diagnosis, are doing hugely important work on the CervicalCheck Steering Committee.

They are channelling their pain and suffering to ensure that what happened to the screening programme never happens again. Also, they want to establish a screening programme we can trust, with the eventual aim of eradicating this deadly disease by extending the HPV vaccine to boys and by introducing HPV testing, which is far more accurate than cytology-based smear testing.

The next section is one that is very close to my heart and an area that I have been vocal about in the media. Treatment for cervical cancer has a devastating impact on your sex life and your ability to have sex again. Following radical treatment, one woman says she’s been unable to have sex with her husband for three years as it’s too painful. And a psychosexual psychotherapist talks about the need for couples to find a new way to be intimate.

A cancer diagnosis not only impacts the person who has been diagnosed, but also their family. With cervical cancer, it is primarily young women who are affected, so we look at the impact of a cancer diagnosis on young children.

We also remember Adrienne Cullen, a warrior woman, who lost her battle with cervical cancer last December. Her husband Peter Cluskey writes about Adrienne’s experience of challenging the Dutch medical and legal systems and her enduring legacy.

At the heart of this edition is a key message: Get a cervical smear — it could save your life.

Today's Feelgood magazine is free with the print edition of the Irish Examiner. Make sure you pick up your copy.

More on this topic

Memoir on Vicky Phelan to be published in September

Remembering Adrienne: Taking a stand against the system

Vicky Phelan (guest editor): Supporting children with a parent undergoing cancer treatment

Vicky Phelan (guest editor): Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walsh working to ensure mistakes of the past are not repeated

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