Vicky Phelan highlights ‘taboo subject’ of sex after cancer treatment

‘It will help the women think ‘I’m not on my own’ and... will scare other people to have their smears’

Cervical cancer victim and campaigner Vicky Phelan has spoken about the “taboo subject” of the difficulties in having sex after treatment for cervical cancer.

Ms Phelan (43) said the sad reality was that many women are unable to have sex after treatment and admitted that she had experienced some difficulties herself.

Ms Phelan, a mother of two from Limerick, settled a High Court action for €2.5 million last April against a US-based laboratory sub-contracted by CervicalCheck to read smear tests.

She took the proceedings after it emerged her 2011 smear test, which showed no abnormalities, was found, in a 2014 audit of smear tests on a number of women, to be incorrect. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014 but did not learn of the review or audit until 2017.


Her refusal to sign a confidentiality clause as part of her legal action and her emotional address outside the court led to a public outcry. This in turn shone a spotlight on CervicalCheck and highlighted the failures of the system.

At the time Ms Phelan said she wanted to alert other women with cervical cancer that they may also have received wrong smear test results and that an internal audit revealing these errors might not have been disclosed to them.

On the RTÉ's Sunday with Miriam radio show, she revealed that following a discussion with fellow campaigner Stephen Teap — whose wife Irene died of the disease last year — she had decided to open up about her own sex life when launching the support group 221+ earlier this year.

“I felt I needed to talk about the whole ‘sex’ thing. It’s a bit like the taboo subjects that we don’t feel we can talk about.

“When we had the first day of our launch, I spoke first and I said to Stephen, ‘Right, I’m going to go at this full metal jacket and I’m going to talk about sex’.

“He would understand. We had this discussion and he said himself and Irene would have had the same problems when she was going through her treatment and she was only 35 when she died. You can imagine having no sex life in your 30s, I mean you know… Jesus.

“One of the things with cervical cancer, I thought if I could go as graphic as I can about my experience and how it has affected my sex life, it will help the women in my situation to think ‘I’m not on my own’ and hopefully it will scare other people to go into the hospital and have their smears because you don’t want to have this cancer.”

Ms Phelan said that the only reason she had spoken openly on the subject was to help other women in a similar position.

She also referred to a woman who was hoping to start a relationship but would have to tell any potential partner that she could not have sex.

“This girl came up to me and she was only 32 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She didn’t have a boyfriend or a partner.

“She got this diagnosis, goes off and has treatment, and the treatment is horrendous. Some women can have a sex life again, in most cases they can’t. This girl can’t have sex again, because they did surgery that shortened her vagina and narrowed her vagina. She’s out now trying to meet somebody and she just broke down.

“I got so upset because, here she is, a beautiful 32-year-old girl, hasn’t got a boyfriend and she said to me, ‘Vicky, how am I supposed to go and meet somebody? How do you have that conversation with a man when sex is off the table?’

Ms Phelan explained how women with cervical cancer are sometimes given dilators in order to widen the vaginal canal, which radiation treatment can narrow. Their purpose is to assist in having intercourse and for when doctors are carrying out internal examinations.

“I just don’t think people understand the extent of the damage that this cancer has on your body, on your sense of being a woman even, because that’s taken away from you and you’re hitting early menopause at 30 or 40, it’s horrendous, horrendous.

“She’d never spoken about it with anybody, except for her doctor or the oncology nurse.”