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Weeks ago no one had heard of Vicky Phelan - now she's a national hero in Republic of Ireland

But her real legacy will be if her battle to reveal the cervical cancer scandal is not in vain, says Barbara McCarthy


Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 2014

Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 2014

Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 2014

The CervicalCheck scandal in the Republic is breathtaking, terrifying and almost beyond comprehension. Its magnitude has yet to be fully revealed, as the headlines keep getting updated.

More than 1,500 women who developed cervical cancer did not have their cases reviewed by CervicalCheck. Some 208 women, whose smear tests gave a false negative result, went on to develop cancer. And 17 women have died so far - 15 of whom never knew they had been the victim of a misdiagnosis.

There are more questions than answers. How could this happen? Who are the faceless people who tried to persuade 43-year-old Vicky Phelan to cover up her own death? How are the other women affected by this seismic scandal coping? Could my cervical check results be wrong? Will anyone go to jail? How did journalists miss this?

Up until only a few weeks ago, we were oblivious to this dark secret for years. Female journalists, especially, across Ireland have been so distracted by often silly scandals involving men and Hollywood that we missed the boat on the biggest human rights issue in the Republic for years.

It ended up being a civilian, Ms Phelan, who brought this wrongdoing of epic proportions into the spotlight by seeking justice.

"Straight away, they (CervicalCheck) were looking for a confidentiality clause," she told Ray D'Arcy on RTE last Saturday. "I was absolutely adamant that I wasn't going to sign a confidentiality clause, before I knew about the other women."

She was, in her words, told to "keep your mouth shut and we'll pay you off". Had she agreed, we wouldn't know of the extent of this controversy.

No one had heard of Ms Phelan a few weeks ago. Now she's a national hero in the Republic.

Needless to say, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Most women I know are paranoid. We're booking smear tests and fearing misdiagnosis.

The people we trusted, who are meant to know about these things better than we do, let us down. On top of that, we're disgusted that families have been torn apart by these avoidable tragedies.

You could be led to think this is a bad time for women in Ireland. But, despite its consequences, this gross medical negligence and subsequent cover-up is not anti-woman.

In the Republic, women's healthcare is good. We are generally well-monitored - that's why this is such an outrage.

My own experiences with the Health Service Executive (HSE) were faultless. I had my baby in a public ward and was blown away by the excellent service I received from prenatal care to being helped to breastfeed my daughter and everything in between.

Women have more complex reproductive systems than men. Men die younger, they don't go to the doctor in the first place. What we, as journalists and citizens, need to do now is work harder to see what other scandals could potentially be hidden under the surface.

We have to push for more transparency.

This is not just a medical story - it's a criminal, political and legal scandal. And those responsible for the cover-up need to be made accountable. We want to see these faces. We must insist upon it.

These 17 women could have lived long and full lives if there was early detection and diagnosis. They would have lived to become grandmothers, lived to see their children grow to adulthood.

There is no monetary exchange for this, no matter how much the state has to dish out. I know of someone in my circle who had her reproductive organs removed. How can you put a cash value on that?

It appears that, within the CervicalCheck scandal, some in positions of power placed the reputations of their colleagues above the interests of the public while we went along for tests, every three years, phobia or not, and hoped for the best - 75,000 to 80,000 of us.

Now we're scared something could have been overlooked.

Once the women and families get paid off for having untimely tragedy inflicted upon their lives, you have to wonder where the cutbacks within the HSE will happen.

There is never enough money for the health service, so I wonder where will all the money be extracted from? What services will be outsourced to pay for this scandal?

On the plus side, Vicky Phelan will save lives. She was brave enough to put herself through the anguish of court to seek justice even after her traumatising terminal diagnosis. She reminded us - both women and men - to be more vigilant.

Get smear tests every year, she said. Privately - the money is worth it. Get regular check-ups. Get second opinions. Don't ignore symptoms. Let's learn from this.

Thank you, Vicky Phelan, for this. Let's hope your battle was not in vain.

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