‘Remarkable’ woman who exposed smear tests scandal dies of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan, who exposed a smear test scandal in Ireland, has died aged 48.

She was described as a “remarkable” human being who had a “seminal influence on healthcare in Ireland” in tributes that poured in today.

Ms Phelan, who died in the early hours of Monday morning, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014; three years after she was incorrectly told her smear test results were clear.

She took her case to the High Court in 2018, which led to more than 200 women coming forward to claim their smear tests had also been misreported.

This, in turn, prompted a series of reviews of Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme CervicalCheck.

While living with a terminal prognosis, she campaigned for better healthcare and accountability in the healthcare system and co-founded the 221+ advocacy group, together with campaigners Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walsh.

President of Ireland Michael D Higgins said that people across Ireland would feel the “deepest sense of sadness” at her loss, while Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Micheal Martin called her a woman of “extraordinary courage, integrity, warmth and generosity of spirit”.

Mr Teap, whose wife Irene died of cervical cancer, said he was brokenhearted to lose his “great friend”, saying another Irish woman had been “taken from us too soon”.

“Five years ago she was told she only had a few months to live,” he said. “She defied all the odds and through her strength and courage became a national treasure honouring us all with her wisdom, love and great sense of humour.

“We will miss you Vicky, thank you for just being you. Rest in peace, my good friend.”

Ms Walsh, meanwhile, said the women of Ireland had “lost our big sister”.

“Vicky, you fought so hard for all of us, I can’t believe you are gone, forever in my heart, thank you for your courage, strength, laughs and support, rest easy my friend, another life lost… Heartbroken.”

Retired Irish broadcaster Charlie Bird, who became close friends with Ms Phelan after announcing that he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease last year, called her a “remarkable” woman.

“This whole country should be in mourning at the passing of this remarkable human being. My heart is broken. My hero is gone,” he said.

Former Labour leader Alan Kelly paid an emotional tribute to “the most incredible human being”, saying the news of her death was “devastating”.

“I suppose what’s really shocking today is Vicky always fought back and she was always the most resilient person I’ve ever met,” he told RTE Radio.

“I suppose in your heart of hearts you know the day will come but it’s still a shock because she always rebounded so many times.”

Dr Gabriel Scally, who led the review into Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme, said she was “a great woman” who had “brought women’s health to the fore”.

“I think, in years to come, she’ll be regarded as having a really seminal influence on healthcare in Ireland and changing it towards a much more patient, sensitive and respectful system.”

The Irish Cancer Society’s chief executive Averil Power said that Ms Phelan had “refused to be silent” and the nation is “truly richer” for the contribution she made to Irish life.

“Today, it is no small understatement to say we are poorer for the loss of Vicky Phelan, but truly richer as a nation for the contribution she so generously made to Irish life,” Ms Power said.