Vicky Phelan says doctors give her ‘dirty look’ due to campaigning

Cervical cancer campaigner criticises the ‘paternalistic’ attitude of medical profession

Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan has criticised the "paternalistic, misogynistic" attitude of many in the medical profession.

Ms Phelan was diagnosed with terminal cancer in November 2017 having been received incorrect false-negative smear test results in 2011. She believes many doctors regard her as a "b**ch" and she gets "dirty looks" from some doctors who regard her as "that woman".

In April last year Ms Phelan accepted a settlement of €2.5 million. It emerged that 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 that year but did not learn of the review or audit until 2017.

“I encourage people to ask questions and they (doctors) hate that,” she said. “I’m not claiming to know everything. I’m simply giving people the tools to challenge the profession because they are not used to be challenged.”

Ms Phelan was the guest speaker at Femfest which has been organised by the National Women’s Council of Ireland to celebrate 100 years since the first Dáil met.

The 44-year-old mother-of-two from Limerick gave a graphic account of the aggressive treatment she received when her cervical cancer was first diagnosed and urged women to make sure they avail of the smear test.


She had to undergo radiation treatment which involved an applicator the diameter of a coffee cup being inserted into her vagina. Rods are attached to the applicator.

She said the treatment shortens and narrows the vagina and the tissue inside becomes “friable” - i.e if you touch it, it will bleed.

“Most women who have that type of treatment find it very difficult to have sex again,” she said. “This is the reality of living with a cervical cancer diagnosis if you have to have that treatment. If you get caught early and you don’t have to have a hysterectomy you are doing well. If you don’t get caught early, you are facing problems for the rest of your life.

“It is an horrendous cancer. This is why I am so graphic about it. There are still some women who are on the fence about having smear test. I’m here to tell you that if you don’t have a smear test and you get cancer, this is what you are up against.”

Ms Phelan said the message that she wanted to give young women in particular was that when women work together “we are at our best”.

“I never saw myself as a leader, yet by speaking out and challenging our government, I have assumed a leadership role. I realised early on that I had been given an opportunity and that I had to use it to affect change.”

Ms Phelan said she no longer cares about what other people think and will speak her mind on the issue of women’s health.

To date 221 women have been diagnosed with cervical cancer whose smear tests were wrongly diagnosed by doctors and who now have the disease.

She said there are 1,700 women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer who were not included in the original audit.

She anticipated that at least 100 women will be found to have been misdiagnosed following a smear test.

Gillette Ad

Opening the conference, the NCWI director Orla O’Connor said the furore over the recent Gillette advertisement, which sought to highlight “toxic masculinity” showed what feminists have “faced for years when we suggest that men should hold other men accountable for their actions.

“The Gillette ad captures a culture of masculinity by highlighting the negative behaviour of some men and says that men can’t use the same old excuses, such as ‘boys will be boys’ any longer.

“So while we need more feminist women in leadership positions, we also need more men advocating for women’s equality. The issues we face are not women’s alone to solve.”

The former RTÉ political correspondent Martina Fitzgerald chaired a discussion at the FemFest.

Ms Fitzgerald quit RTÉ after she was not reappointed as political correspondent. She said the year ended “on a rather dramatic note for me, but I’m in great form”.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times