Vicky Phelan: Ireland needs a minister for women’s health

‘We need somebody in there who knows what it feels like to have periods and babies’

Ireland needs a minister for women's health, author and women's health advocate, Vicky Phelan, says if we want women's issues "to be taken seriously." Phelan was speaking to Róisín Ingle at The Irish Times Women's Podcast Big Night In, an online event on Saturday night.

“Men don’t know women like women know women, and I’m sorry, that is a reality” she continued. “I do think we need somebody in there who is a woman, and who knows what it feels like to be a woman and to have periods and to have babies and to go through the menopause.”

Discussing the aftermath of brachytherapy, which was used unsuccessfully to treat her cervical cancer, Phelan says she was sent home with “no support about the aftercare”. “I got handed a bag of these hard, solid plastic, penis-shaped dilators that were kind of starting quite narrow, building up size-wise. You’re supposed to use these for two reasons, to keep your vagina open for internal examinations, or if you want to consider having sex again after having all of that done to you.

“And there is no support for women. I remember asking my nurse was there any support…and she said I have a card here for a sexual therapist and I said ‘Okay’, thinking that was available for me through the cancer centre. No, that was private and…that was €70-80 an hour, which was beyond me at the time.” “We make up 50 per cent of the population of this country. Why are we not getting supports for all of this?”

Phelan, who is currently undergoing experimental cancer treatment in the US said she’s hoping to get home to see her family in July. After a rough start, she has adjusted well to her treatment and appears to be tolerating the full drug dose, which she explains has “very nice side-effects” too. “One of the things this drug does is it boosts your immune system”. “It’s boosting your collagen, it’s boosting your skin cells. I’ve never had such good nails or hair.”

Conversations about death shouldn’t “be left until you’re nearly dying” Phelan says. “When you’re at that stage, you’re very emotional and it’s hard to make rational decisions about what you want. Or if you get to a stage where somebody dies suddenly and nobody knows what that person might have wanted.”

“I’ve planned my death to the last,” she says. “I’m one of those control freaks who plans everything, including my death and my funeral.” No one is to wear black to her funeral and she’d like it to be “like a night out with live music.” “We’ve really discussed it and talked about it quite a lot with my family, and I think everybody should, to be quite honest”

“I’m a stubborn b*tch, I’ve always been a stubborn b*tch”, Phelan says about her refusal to sign the confidentiality clause during mediation, ahead of her court case, in spite of her extremely poor health at the time. “I was so angry. I was so angry that they were trying to brush this under the carpet”.

“There was that, but there was also knowledge. I had also knowledge that there were ten other women, that’s all I knew about.” “I could not stand over not letting those women know.”

Speaking of her involvement with the Dying with Dignity group, Phelan says "I remember watching Marie Fleming thinking it was absolutely disgraceful that woman could not make a decision about how she ended her life".

“I don’t want to die. What am I doing over here away from my family and my kids for 12 months - because I want to get more time. I often say that to people, ‘yeah I advocate for this, but it’s not because I want to die’. I want to get as much time as I can, but when my time comes, and there will come a time when there’s no turning back for me, a couple of weeks and months left, I do not want to be lingering”

“I would rather be able to say in those last few days or week, ‘give me the injection. Let me say my goodbyes now and then just let me go peacefully. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask. We do it with dogs, we do it with our animals. Why can’t we do it with people, particularly when there’s no coming back? That’s all I ask.”

This was the final event in The Women’s Podcast Big Night In talks, featuring Róisín Ingle in conversation with a number of influential women in front of a live audience.