Minute’s silence marks launch of smear test support group

For the 221-plus women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal, the hurt is undiminished

Vicky Phelan, Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walsh at the formal launch of the 221+ CervicalCheck Patient Support Group in Farmleigh, Phoenix Park, Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Vicky Phelan, Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walsh at the formal launch of the 221+ CervicalCheck Patient Support Group in Farmleigh, Phoenix Park, Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Farmleigh on a beautiful autumn day, the trees turning brown under a clear blue sky; the kind of place you bring the family for a tramp along leaf-strewn paths on a Sunday afternoon.

You could hear those families enjoying themselves outside while a minute’s silence was being observed in a meeting room for other families who have been sundered by cancer, and who were attending the launch of the support group for the women at the centre of the CervicalCheck controversy.

The silence was for Emma Mhic Mhathúna, who was buried last Wednesday leaving five children behind; for a woman identified only as Julie, who died a week ago leaving behind four children and two grandchildren; and for the 18 other women who have died.

“Silence,” as Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died of cervical cancer two years ago, noted, “is the most deafening sound” for many of the women and families affected.

“I don’t know what was worse – the day Irene died or the day I found out she could have lived,” Mr Teap told the meeting, referring to the day he learned her cervical cancer had been missed by two smear tests. “None of us wants to be part of this scandal.”

Six months on since Vicky Phelan’s court settlement blew the lid on the botched audit of the CervicalCheck programme, it is clear that for many of the women involved, the hurt is undiminished.

Comfort

Galway woman Lorraine Walsh says she has drawn comfort in dealing with her cancer diagnosis from the support she has received from her fellow women and families involved in this “disaster”.

“The day I found out I had cancer was what I thought was the worst day of my life. I was wrong; the day I found out that I shouldn’t have got cancer had my smear been read properly was the worst day of my life.

“I am now riddled every day with the awful thoughts of ‘what if?’ which has shaken me to my very core and challenged me mentally and emotionally beyond any physical or emotional challenges that I ever experienced before.”

“It has been traumatic for all of us,” Ms Phelan remarked, though the women involved have been affected in “221 different ways”.

I never saw myself as a campaigner. If you told me six months ago, I would have said ‘no feckin’ way’

“There was harm done to women. We all have been harmed and traumatised by the failure of the CervicalCheck programme.

“Often people ask me, ‘You’re terminally ill, how come you are not crying and sad? How are you doing what you’re doing?’ I can only explain it by saying I have a new sense of purpose. This gives me purpose, that’s what I’m put here for.”

Enormity

A patently optimistic and analytical woman, Ms Phelan has attempted to process the enormity of her fate by following best practice for coping with trauma. With the shock of the original revelation of her cancer and her misread tests behind her, she has moved on to action and “meaning-making”.

“I never saw myself as a campaigner. If you told me six months ago, I would have said ‘no feckin’ way’, but your heart takes over and you’re so passionate about what you’re doing that your head gets out of the way and you start talking. I haven’t stopped talking since.”

Six months on, it is also clear that the full extent of the controversy may never become apparent. How many women’s slides were misread? How much negligence was involved? What difference would a different smear result have made to their health? We may never know.

Even the name of the “221-plus” support group acknowledges that the exact number of women affected is not known. And may never be known, as only a minority of the group have consented to their slides being re-tested in a further review of smear tests to be carried out shortly in the UK.