Vicky Phelan: Do not stop having smear tests

A terminally ill Limerick woman who last week settled a case for €2.5m has said she hopes her case does not deter other women from getting smear tests.

Vicky Phelan, who was incorrectly given the all-clear from a smear test in 2011 before developing cervical cancer, has called for the laboratories involved to lose their contract for checking the samples.

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

“I think the problems are in the management of the programme and the laboratories that are being used but I think the CervicalCheck programme is fantastic. I don’t want to see any woman end up in my situation.

“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.”

Ms Phelan recalled getting the all-clear in 2011, before presenting for another smear test in 2014 due to her own concerns.

The results prompted her GP to send her for an urgent colposcopy.

It was after the procedure that Ms Phelan was asked something that made her realise the seriousness of her condition.

“When he was finished and as I was getting dressed he said to me the question that made me think ‘oh God’. He said to me: ‘Are you finished having your family?’

“I said yes, absolutely, I said I have my two, I’m happy with that and he said: ‘Okay, well, that’s good because I’ve provisionally booked you in for a hysterectomy.’ ”

However, it was later established that the cancer had spread, necessitating an aggressive treatment programme.

In September 2017, Ms Phelan went for a routine check-up with her gynecologist, during which he told her there had been a review of women who had cervical cancer, and that their previous smears were retested. Ms Phelan’s GP said her sample returned a ‘query’.

He told her he was aware of three women whose smears had been reviewed who have since died.

Ms Phelan said she ‘parked’ the issue as she was busy — her daughter had medical issues that nearly resulted in the loss of her eyesight, and Ms Phelan was applying for a job at the time.

A November scan brought more concerns, and on January 12 last Ms Phelan went to the hospital with her daughter and mother where she was told she had terminal cancer.

“That was the worst appointment ever, and she told me that if I didn’t take the treatment that was going to be offered to me, I’d be dead in six months,” she said.

“My head was spinning. I actually had to hold onto the wall just to try and steady myself. Luckily enough her office is off the wing of the waiting room and there’s a toilet there, and I didn’t have to go back out to the waiting room.

“So I went into the toilet and I stayed there for about 20 minutes, and I bawled and I bawled and I bawled. I had to get it out before I went out to my mother and my daughter because I knew if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to contain it.”

Ms Phelan immediately started looking for clinical trials, and it was while waiting for a biopsy last January that she took a look at her file.

She said: “I was skimming through the file, looking at all the letters, and this letter hopped out off the page and it was the letter from the cervical screening programme about the review. And the minute I read it the hairs literally went on the back of my neck. My mother could see my face changing and asked what’s wrong, and I said: ‘Jesus, Mam, there’s something just not right.’

“There was a bit on the letter about how to communicate this to the patient and I thought: ‘What the hell?’ Then I looked at the end of the page and it said: ‘Page two of two.’

“I said to Mam there’s a page missing, to which she said it’s probably only the cover page, and I said: ‘Yeah but to whom and when was this sent?’ Because at that stage I was like a conspiracy theorist.

“I just knew something was not quite right so of course I take out my phone to take photos of all of this. That was when I decided I’m contacting a solicitor.”

Despite being the wronged party, Ms Phelan found the court case difficult.

“I’m the victim here, I didn’t do anything wrong, yet I was the one up there on the stand talking about very personal, private parts of my life, my sex life, my marriage, the impact this has had on me emotionally, mentally, and nobody from the HSE or this medical lab had to stand up there and do that,” she said.

She said she could not in good conscience sign a confidentiality agreement with the HSE.

“There was no way I was going to be shut up, because I could not have it on my conscience to have other women not know what I didn’t know for three years,” she said. “I had to go public for that reason to make sure they knew.

“The next step that has to be taken is a review of the laboratories that they’re using to test the smear samples. At the moment they have three contracted laboratories, one here in Ireland and two in the States.

“Professor John Shepherd was our legal team’s gynecological expert and he absolutely slated the use of the American laboratories, because they’re just not as good as the standard in the UK and the standards that we require here.

“At the end of the day, they’re the people who paid my damages and my settlement and they’re the ones that should be looked into seriously, and I personally would like to see them not getting their contract renewed and for this to be totally and utterly reviewed and with a view to using suppliers of where the quality control is much more stringent.”

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