'I can't go to back to a point where I didn't have cancer, so I have to just enjoy each day and make plans for the time I have left'
She’s bright, bubbly, articulate, well-educated and successful – so by rights, the world should be her oyster.
But for 26-year-old Laura Brennan, the future she could have had is very different to her reality. Diagnosed in 2016 with cervical cancer, the Clare woman received treatment which seemed successful, only to be told a few short months later that her cancer returned and this time, it was a terminal. There was nothing more which could be done other than a course of treatment which would hopefully prolong her life.
However, despite this naturally devastating course of events, Laura, who has three older brothers, remains remarkably upbeat and calm. Her main objective, in the time she has left, is to enjoy life and continue to raise awareness about the importance of the HPV vaccine. Ms Brennan says she believes she would not have developed cervical cancer if she had been offered the vaccine as a teenager, and instead, would be on the cusp of a long life ahead.
It was her dedication to raising awareness and education about the 'urgent need to avail of this free vaccine' that she was given an honorary doctorate from University College Dublin.
“I feel I’m totally undeserving of this award," she told Independent.ie Life. “I am just telling it like it is because I really want people to know that if I had the HPV vaccine, doctors are 99.9% positive that I wouldn’t have developed cancer. And if there had been herd immunity, it is likely that that I would have had 100% protection against it.
“I have always been a good talker and as a child used to be put outside the classroom door for constantly nattering. And then I ended up working in sales, so I am a good communicator and I believe people need to know how important this is. I am the reality of an unvaccinated person and by ticking no for their daughter (or son when this is available for boys); my situation could be what they are signing up for. It is the safest and most tested vaccine ever and it is totally incredible that we can safely say there is a form of cancer which is preventable with a vaccine. I bet if there was a pill available to prevent breast cancer, people would be queuing up to get it in the morning.”
While steadfastly reiterating the lack of vaccine as the reason her lifespan has been drastically reduced, Laura shows extraordinary grace and maturity as she doesn’t allow herself to dwell on the bad hand she has been dealt, instead trying to focus on the positive aspects of her life.
“After my first round of treatment I was absolutely delighted to be told that the cancer was gone,” she says. “It was the best news I ever had and my family was overjoyed.
“But a few months later, I felt something was wrong, even though I had no symptoms, I just knew. So I told doctors that I had really bad back pain - I didn’t, but I needed something to warrant a PET (positron emission tomography) scan which would be the most efficient way of picking up any problems.
“I had just started a new job in Killarney but came to Limerick for the scan results and wasn’t surprised to hear that the cancer had come back. The doctor was concerned about how I was taking the news but I just accepted it as I felt I had some control over how I would live my life for the time I had left – people are killed in car crashes all the time and have no opportunity to say goodbye or do the things they want to do, so at least this way, while it’s not what I expected from my life, I can make the most of the time I have left.”
After being told that the disease is terminal, Laura, the youngest of the four siblings, underwent five months of very intense treatment, which although it wouldn’t eradicate the cancerous cells, would hopefully contain them. At the moment she is on a course of immunotherapy and although is currently in hospital fighting an infection, hopes to be home for Christmas and get a holiday with the girls in beforehand.
“I can’t change the past or go to back to a point where I didn’t have cancer, so I have to just enjoy each day and make plans for the time I have left,” she says. “I am on a slow acting drug which has only a 14% chance of working – and while I am hopeful it will do something I am also realistic and know that it may not have any affect.
“So I’m making sure to grab life with both hands while I still can – if I can get out of hospital in time, I plan to go to Fuerteventura for a few days with my friends and then go home for Christmas in Ennis with my parents and brothers. My family and friends have been absolutely amazing and are trying to be just as positive as I am – so we don’t have a sad home where everyone is tiptoeing around afraid to say anything. I have told people that they can ask me anything they want and no topic is taboo so that makes things a lot easier all round.”
Laura doesn’t know how much time she has left, but knows there are aspects of her life she would have loved to experience, for example, being an auntie.
“I have had many highs in the past year or so – a lot more than lows,” she says. “I would say that despite the cancer, the last 12 months have been the best of my life; I was at the Toy Show in November, I went to a concert with my brother, to Copenhagen and the US to talk about my experiences - I have had so many great opportunities and made some fantastic friends.
“Playing a small role in spreading the word about the importance of vaccination has been an amazing experience and to be honest, I haven’t had any tough times really – the only thing that really gets me is when I see someone younger than me dealing with cancer or any other illness – I find that very upsetting. And although it would have been nice to have some nieces or nephews to play with (I’m still waiting), I have been really lucky as life has been so good to me.
“I’m going to enjoy the run up to the holidays and will rest as much as possible so I can hopefully get a night out in Coppers, hit a few Christmas markets and generally enjoy the festivities. I am particularly looking forward to spending time with my family as they have been amazing and I really don’t know what I would have done without them.”
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is very common and most people have an HPV infection at some point in their lives. It is mainly harmless, but for some, it can cause cancer. E
Each year in Ireland around 420 people are diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV.
The majority of these cases will be women getting cervical cancer, but the virus also causes cancers which affect men and women, such as mouth and throat and anorectal cancer.
Averil Power, Chief Executive of the Irish Cancer Society explains the importance of the HPV vaccine: “These cancers could potentially be prevented through HPV vaccination which works best when given before infection with the virus, which is why it is recommended that girls and boys get the vaccine at a young age.
“The Irish Cancer Society wants to see as many people as possible live cancer-free. Laura Brennan has been such an amazing advocate for the vaccine because she knows all too well the effects of HPV-caused cancers like cervical cancer. Thanks in large part to her campaigning efforts, vaccine uptake among girls rose from 51% to 65% in a single year. The Irish Cancer Society wants to help increase this uptake further, and alongside advocates like Laura and the HPV Vaccination Alliance, we encourage girls in their first year of secondary school to take advantage of the free national HPV vaccination programme available to them.
“We also want to see as many boys as possible get the vaccine. Around 85 men in Ireland develop a HPV-caused cancer each year which could potentially be prevented by this simple and safe inoculation. Both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health have promised that in 2019 boys will finally also be able to avail of the vaccine through the schools vaccination programme. The Irish Cancer Society will work hard to ensure that this happens and that any rollout of the vaccine to boys will be accompanied by a well-resourced national awareness campaign that allays any concerns parents have about it.
“Parents can rest assured that the HPV vaccine is safe. Research by the World Health Organisation, European Medicines Agency, several country-level regulatory agencies and other independent reviews and expert analyses all show that the HPV vaccine is safe, effective and saves lives.”
For more information visit www.cancer.ie/hpv and www.hpv.ie or call 1800 200 700