For the sake of all our daughters, Laura's message must live on
Laura Brennan couldn't save herself - but her tireless work means 36 women a year will be spared a cervical cancer diagnosis, writes Ciara Kelly
Laura Brennan - one of the most beautiful souls I ever met - passed away last Wednesday at the tragically young age of 26 after a long, tough battle with cervical cancer.
Oh, I know people say you shouldn't liken cancer to a battle because that could imply that those who don't survive just didn't fight hard enough - but the truth is there are some battles you can't win, irrespective of how hard you fight. Laura's cancer had spread long ago and she knew she would ultimately lose her life to it - but fight on she did with multiple medical treatments. What was most remarkable about Laura was how hard she fought for everyone else - right until the very end of her life.
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Laura was the face of the HSE's HPV vaccination campaign which she was completely committed to. And even though she knew her life couldn't be saved by vaccination, she was determined she wanted to spare as many other young women the horrible disease she was living with. Even last week she spoke with my radio producer and said she was willing to come on air to raise awareness. "Just let me know - whatever you need," she said. I never did that interview with Laura, I was away for a few days and by the time I came home she had died.
But I was lucky enough to have met her on a number of occasions, both professionally and socially. And what struck me always was her upbeat attitude and her humour. Laura knew she was dying. She knew at 26 she probably wouldn't see 27. She knew she was going to miss out on so much life she should have lived, but she was still amazingly good fun. She was great company. She had a wry take on her own situation that was utterly without self-pity and was all about living what life she had left with as much gusto as possible.
Her family said of her on her passing; "Laura used her voice, her generosity and her energy to help parents to make informed choices and protect their daughters from cervical cancer. She wanted to make a difference, and use the time that she had to right what she felt was a great wrong." And she did exactly that.
Cervical cancer is a horrible disease. It's aggressive - a third of the women who get it are dead within five years. It affects mainly young women in their 30s and 40s though it can affect even younger women like Laura. And the treatments are brutal. Surgery, radiation, chemo and other drugs that destroy their sex lives, leave them sick, bald and often in pain. Not all cancers are equal. Cervical cancer is cruel.
Laura was determined that every parent in Ireland would hear her story of losing her life to the disease rather than negative stories about the vaccine against it - which are circulating but have no scientific basis in fact.
She contacted the HSE herself after her terminal diagnosis in September 2016 to offer to advocate for the vaccine and she worked tirelessly on the campaign ever since.
When Laura started to talk about her experience, the vaccine uptake levels had fallen to 50pc after an undeserved but sustained campaign against it. Since her advocacy, the uptake levels have climbed to more than 70pc and are continuing to rise. That difference in uptake which can be almost solely attributed to the work of Laura Brennan has meant that 36 women a year going forward will be spared that terrible diagnosis and the lives of 12 women a year will be saved. She saved those people.
It's believed in countries like Australia where the vaccine uptake is very high that cervical cancer will eventually be eradicated completely. That could happen here, too. In time, Irish girls and young women could be spared the scourge of cervical and indeed other HPV-related cancers. Irish men, too - who are about to be vaccinated - will be spared head and neck cancers, penile cancers and ano-genital cancers as HPV causes approximately 4pc of all cancers we develop. But to truly see benefit from the HPV vaccination programme, we need to see uptake numbers continue to rise.
That's what Laura wanted. That should be her legacy. The HPV vaccine is safe and effective and protects against the majority of cervical cancers - a truly terrible disease you wouldn't wish on anyone. To have a cure for cancer has long been the goal for modern medicine. We have gone one better now with a prevention against developing one of the worst cancers we get. To opt out of that for your daughters or your sons is madness. My daughter got the vaccine and my sons will, too, and it gives me great comfort knowing I've protected them.
Laura Brennan lived the last years of her short life campaigning to protect all our daughters. She desperately wanted people to know how awful, how unfair cervical cancer is. She desperately wanted parents to realise no girls should have to suffer as she suffered. Laura was a hero. Please do not let her death at 26 go unheeded. Vaccinate your children and protect them.
Every woman with cervical cancer would have loved a chance to be spared that fate. And going forward they can be. Please do not let Laura Brennan be forgotten. Vaccines work. Protect your kids. #ThankyouLaura
- @ciarakellydoc Ciara Kelly presents 'Lunchtime Live' weekdays on Newstalk from 12-2