Monday 24 June 2019

Vicky Phelan praised for 'inspiring' speech as she is awarded honorary fellowship

Campaigner: Vicky Phelan. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Campaigner: Vicky Phelan. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Ralph Riegel

Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan stressed that education saved her life as she revealed she had the courage to ignore the advice of her doctors and personally pursue the revolutionary trials drug which has now shrunk her tumours by 50pc.

The mother-of-two revealed that, had she listened to her doctors and agreed to undergo palliative, aggressive chemotherapy, she most likely would not be alive today.

Vicky Phelan, the cancer patient whose case triggered the cervical cancer screening controversy in Ireland, arrives for the funeral mass for Emma Mhic Mhathuna, one of the most high-profile victims of Ireland's cervical smear test controversy, at St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Vicky Phelan, the cancer patient whose case triggered the cervical cancer screening controversy in Ireland, arrives for the funeral mass for Emma Mhic Mhathuna, one of the most high-profile victims of Ireland's cervical smear test controversy, at St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Her comments came as she was awarded an honorary fellowship at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) where she has worked since 2006.

The Limerick woman accepted the award as WIT hailed her as an inspiration and a role model for Irish people.

Vicky used her acceptance speech to urge women to continue to go for smear tests, to accept the HPV vaccination and to have the courage to seek a second medical opinion if they are unhappy about what their primary doctor tells them.

"The medical professionals treating me for my cancer only offered me palliative chemotherapy which would give me 12 months at most," she said.

"By their calculations, I would dead before the end of the year.

"But, as a result of my own research and stubborn determination and perseverance I managed to get myself onto (a trial) for a new wonder drug called Pembrolizumab against all medical advice from my treating oncologists.

"I now have more than a 50pc shrinkage in my tumours and, my importantly, with a quality of life that would not have been possible on palliative chemotherapy."

Vicky's campaigning ensured that all the other 221 women impacted by the CervicalCheck scandal now have been granted access by the Government to the wonder drug.

But Vicky warned that many, having undergone palliative chemotherapy, are so ill and weak the potential impact of the wonder drug has been undermined.

The Limerick mother was hailed at WIT as an inspiration to all and someone who fearlessly made "a transformational contribution" to women's health in Ireland.

Vicky, speaking as she accepted the honorary fellowship, said it was "a dream come true."

"It is the pinnacle for me - I am pinching myself to make sure this isn't a dream.

"I am a true lifelong learner. I am honoured to accept this award and wish to accept it on behalf of the women of Ireland for whom I have been campaigning and who inspire me to continue in my campaign for improvements in women's healthcare," she said.

She received the award proudly watched by her husband, Jim, and children Amelia (12) and Darragh (7).

The Annacotty woman became emotional as she was hailed as "a role model" for WIT and someone who reflects all the values and goals of the Waterford college.

"We are very proud to call Vicky one of our own," WIT President Prof Willie Donnelly said.

"She is an important part of the WIT community, a valued member of staff and a WIT alumna."

Prof Donnelly said the campaigner had done WIT a great honour by accepting the award.

Vicky is now on the revolutionary treatment Pembrolizumab for her terminal cervical cancer - and revealed her second round of scans revealed further shrinkage in her tumours.

The drug costs €8,000 per dose and Vicky argued that everyone with cancer who could benefit from it should be given access to it.

She is now personally funding a medical research treatment post so people with queries about such radical new drugs have somewhere to go for information.

"I am hoping that this will also shame the Government into doing the same thing," she said.

"If I wasn't on this treatment, I don't know if I would still be here. But I had to research this treatment myself, make a nuisance of myself in demanding it and finally shaming them (the Government) into allowing me to receive it.

"But why aren't other women in my position receiving the same treatment if it can be as successful as in my case?"

Vicky revealed she has now raised the issue repeatedly with Health Minister Simon Harris and has made it her primary campaign focus.

She is now in contact two to three times each week with Mr Harris about health reforms.

She said he has given a commitment to ensure other women wrongly given the all clear in cervical cancer smear tests get access to such treatments.

Before she received Pembrolizumab she admitted she felt very unwell.

"To be honest, I was going downhill - I thought this was the beginning of the end.

"I thought at the time I was going to die. I had been told I was terminally ill. Now, I feel good, I haven't lost my hair, my quality of life is good and I don't look like a cancer patient.

"It is an awful indictment of our country that people have to go to these lengths to research these drugs.

"I have no doubt that if I had taken their (doctors) advice back in January I would be dead now or on the way out.

"Chemotherapy would have only bought me until the end of the year which is now coming up. But I would have been sick, very sick.

"I have spoken to women who are on this treatment and they are in and out of hospital all the time with infection after infection.

"It is not curing you - it is making you sick. It is not really buying you time and this is all they can offer. I don't believe that is right.

"We are talking about young women here."

She also urged women to go for smear tests and to accept the HPV vaccine.

She also said the HPV vaccine should be made available to boys.

"I don't want any more women getting cancer. If I have scared women into it (getting tested), that is what I wanted. What happened to me was awful but I don't want it for anybody else.

"That is why I have been campaigning. I have a 13-year-old daughter and she has just had her HPV vaccine two weeks ago. She will get her second one in January or February. I don't want her getting cervical cancer. I was driven all along by the fact that, at the beginning, I thought that I was going to die. I don't think that is the case now - I hope not anyway. At least not for another while."

Vicky accepted the honorary fellowship from WIT just five months after she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick (UL).

Vicky, a WIT researcher, helped highlight the cervical cancer test scandal earlier this year when she refused to sign a non-disclosure settlement after her smear tests incorrectly gave a negative reading seven years ago.

She was diagnosed with cancer three years later.

The mother-of-two has worked at WIT since 2006 and has held a number of roles within the School of Lifelong Learning and Education.

Her current role is manager of the Literacy Development Centre, a national centre for the professional development of adult literacy practitioners.

The award follows a recommendation to the WIT Governing Body earlier this year, which was unanimously approved.

The WIT Honorary Fellowship is awarded to individuals who have demonstrated distinction in a field of human endeavour to such an extent as to provide motivation and inspiration to the Institute community.

WIT Governing Body Chairman, Jim Moore, said the decision to honour Vicky Phelan was unanimous.

"As educators, WIT acknowledges graduates, encouraging them to participate fully and actively in society as we can all benefit from responsible, creative and ethical participation. As a role model, Vicky demonstrates those attributes."

Prof Donnelly said the award was richly deserved.

“Vicky, through her actions, has made a transformational contribution to women's health in Ireland," he said.

"Her courage, her desire for the truth and her determination represent values that are fundamental to society at large; core principles which have been truly inspirational for all of us in WIT.

"As a community it is very fitting that we award Vicky with the highest honour this Institute can afford in recognition of her strength, her leadership and her fighting spirit,” he said.

Vicky was the victim of a false negative test in her cervical smear screening in 2011.

She was diagnosed with cancer three years later in 2014 and was later given a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

She settled a High Court action against the US laboratory involved for €2.5 million but steadfastly refused to concede a non-disclosure statement.

Vicky then spoke about about what had happened to her - and, in doing so, helped highlight the sheer scale of the cervical screening scandal.

It was revealed that 221 Irish women had incorrect smear test results over recent years.

Of those 221 women, 18 passed away before they learned their smear test results were incorrect.

Memos released last May revealed how senior HSE executives and CervicalCheck staff were fearful in 2016 of the damage likely to be caused to the screening programme if reports about the incorrect smear test results were made public.

The High Court was told that if the cancerous cells had been detected in 2011 she would have undergone a simple procedure and had a 90pc chance of survival.

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