Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan dies aged 48

Irish cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan has died at the age of 48.

The Limerick mother-of-two died in the early hours of Monday morning.

Ms Phelan grabbed the attention of the Irish public in 2018 after bringing a High Court case over how her cervical smears tests were handled.

She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, three years after a smear test result she had undergone was wrongly reported as clear.

Her case prompted more than 200 other women to come forward over misreported smear test results and led to a series of reviews of Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme CervicalCheck.

Despite receiving a terminal cervical cancer diagnosis, Ms Phelan actively campaigned for better healthcare and better accountability in the healthcare system and co-founded the 221+ advocacy group alongside campaigners Lorraine Walsh and Stephen Teap.

President of Ireland Michael D Higgins said anyone who had the privilege of meeting Ms Phelan will have been struck by her “powerful inner strength and dignity”, while Irish premier Micheal Martin said she was a  “woman of extraordinary courage”.

President Higgins said: “All of us who had the privilege of meeting Vicky will have been struck by the powerful inner strength and dignity with which she not only faced her own illness, but with the sense of commitment to the public good and the rights of others with which she campaigned.

“Vicky, in all of this, made an enormous contribution to Irish society. Thanks to her tireless efforts, despite the terrible personal toll she herself had to carry, so many women’s lives have been protected, and will be protected in the future.

“She will be deeply missed, by all of those who were in awe of her courage, her resilience, offered not only to women but to all of us in Ireland.”

Taoiseach Micheal Martin extended his deepest sympathies Ms Phelan’s family, describing her as a  “outstanding advocate for women across this country, and across the globe”.

“Vicky was a woman of extraordinary courage, integrity, warmth and generosity of spirit,” Mr Martin said.

“She made a very significant contribution to public life in Ireland and Vicky’s actions and commitment will live long in the memory of the entire nation.”

The Fianna Fail leader said Ms Phelan “stood up” for the public interest and ensured the embedding of the principle of full public disclosure in the area of public health.

“Vicky always gave selflessly of her time to help others, even though she was going through severe illness herself,” the Taoiseach added.

“The people of Ireland have a deep affection for Vicky, and will always hold her contribution to public life in the highest regard.”

Ireland’s deputy leader Leo Varadkar said Ireland had lost a woman of “limitless courage, compassion and strength”, as he extended his sympathies, particularly to her children for the loss of their “incredible mother”.

“Vicky was a shining example of the power of the human spirit,” Mr Varadkar said.

“Her fight to uncover the truth and the courage with which she faced her illness made her an inspiration to us all.”

Former Labour leader Alan Kelly described his friend as the “most incredible human being probably I’ve ever met”, while Dr Gabriel Scally, who led the review into Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme, said she will be regarded as having a “seminal influence” on the healthcare system.

In a statement the 221+ CervicalCheck Patient Support Group said they had lost their “biggest big sister”, and asked that the cervical cancer programme not fail others in Ms Phelan’s memory.

Campaigner and 221+ co-founder Lorraine Walsh said she was “heartbroken” by the loss of her friend. She wrote in a post on Twitter: “Mná na hEireann we have 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.”

Further and Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said it was a “utterly heartbreaking day” as the country had lost an “incredible advocate and an incredible person”.

“She genuinely does change the country for the better,” the former health minister said.

“There are things that have happened in Ireland that would not have happened were it not for Vicky Phelan. The Scally report being one. The Women’s Health Task Force. New drugs like Pembro, I mean so much has happened because of her.”

National Women’s Council of Ireland director, Orla O’Connor, said Ms Phelan meant “so much to us all”.

“Such incredibly sad news – there aren’t enough words to describe the loss of Vicky Phelan, sincerest sympathies to Vicky’s family and friends,” she said.

“Vicky meant so much to us all and we have so much to thank her for all she did for women in Ireland.”

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald described Ms Phelan as a “champion of women” who took on the State and won.

“Vicky was an inspiration to us all,” she said.

“The dignity with which she dealt with her illness, in a very public way, was formidable.

“Vicky should never have had to be a campaigner, but her advocacy on behalf of Irish women will never be forgotten.

Ms Phelan was awarded the freedom of Limerick earlier this year, and was named as one of the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women around the world in 2018.