Monday 24 September 2018

Gross breach of trust: fears for more women as new cancer test failures uncovered

  • €2.5m awarded to terminally ill mother seven years after she was given all clear
  • Unclear if other women were aware of the contents of review into smear tests
  • Mother calls for investigation into CervicalCheck programme
Vicky Phelan from Annacotty, Co. Limerick, pictured speaking to the media on leaving the Four Courts after the announcement of a settlement of her High Court action for damages. Photo: Collins Courts
Vicky Phelan from Annacotty, Co. Limerick, pictured speaking to the media on leaving the Four Courts after the announcement of a settlement of her High Court action for damages. Photo: Collins Courts

Concerns have emerged about the care of 15 more women who were diagnosed with cancer after undergoing tests in the free national screening service CervicalCheck.

The women’s cases were the subject of an internal CervicalCheck report carried out in 2014.

But the report came to light only during legal proceedings by Vicky Phelan of Annacotty, Co Limerick, who was given the all-clear following a smear test in 2011 but now has terminal cancer.

The 43-year-old mother-of-two, who settled her High Court action for €2.5m yesterday, said she was informed of the internal report only late last year.

“To know for almost three years a mistake had been made and I was misdiagnosed was bad enough,” she said.

“But to keep that from me until I became terminally ill and to drag me through the courts to fight for my right to the truth is an appalling breach of trust.

“I truly hope some good will come of this case and there will be an investigation into the CervicalCheck programme as a result of this.”

Ms Phelan’s solicitor Cian O’Carroll told the Irish Independent the names of about 15 women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer are contained in the 2014 internal report. He said it was unclear whether the other women were aware of the contents of the report.

However, he said the failure of CervicalCheck to disclose the report’s findings for three years was a “gross breach of trust”.

A spokeswoman for CervicalCheck said that since 2010 the screening history of every women who had had a test under the service and developed cancer would be reviewed.

“This offer an important opportunity to maintain and improve the quality of the programme and is in line with international best practice,” she said.

“Women who are diagnosed with cancer are advised of the audit process – women may request to be informed when the review is complete and what the outcomes are.”

The outcome is communicated by letter to the woman’s treating doctor and CervicalCheck will write to her to tell her it is being done but there is no set timescale for giving this information.

However, Ms Phelan became aware of the report only during discovery of court documents and was not told of the outcome for three years, in late 2017.

The CervicalCheck spokeswoman said false negative smear results and the development of interval cancers between screenings were features of these schemes worldwide.

Ms Phelan broke down in tears as she thanked her husband Jim and her family.

“There are no winners here today. I am terminally ill and there is no cure for my cancer.

“My settlement will mostly be spent on buying me time and on paying for clinical trials to keep me alive and to allow me spend more time with my children.

“If I die, I truly hope that won’t be the case, the money will provide for my family.”

Her smear test came back clear in 2011 but she developed bleeding in 2014 and, after undergoing an examination at University Hospital Limerick, she was told she had cancer.

“I was in shock when I was told. I am angry, extremely angry. “If I was diagnosed I probably would have had to have a procedure and at worse a hysterectomy,” she said. “If I was told sooner I would not be in a position of a terminal cancer diagnosis.”

Ms Phelan was given the tragic news last January that without palliative chemotherapy she had just six months to live and with the chemotherapy about 12 months.

The court was asked to make directions in relation to the part of the settlement which is for the Phelan children Amelia (12) and Darragh (7).

Approving the settlement, Mr Justice Kevin Cross said Ms Phelan was one of the most impressive witnesses he had come across in his court.

The case against the HSE was struck out and the settlement was only against the US laboratory Clinical Pathology Laboratories Inc, Austin, Texas. It was made without admission of liability.

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