Cervical cancer controversy: ‘Why are they fighting these women so badly?’

The death, a fortnight ago, of Ruth Morrissey, at the age of 39, created a lot of unrest among the other women whose lives have been affected by the CervicalCheck controversy, according to Lorraine Walsh.

It has “brought a lot of reality” to the situation being faced by the women, said Walsh, who suffers from life-altering conditions brought about by the successful but invasive treatments she received for cervical cancer. She believes she would not have needed these treatments if her CervicalCheck smears, like those of Morrissey, had not been misread. The effects of the treatment include her not being able to have children.

“It just seems to be hanging over you all the time, and the more women that are getting sick, and the more women that are in court, and the more women that are dying, just makes you feel more and more nervous,” she told The Irish Times.

There is a widespread feeling among those affected that the momentum that existed since 2018 in relation to confronting the CervicalCheck controversy disappeared late last year

A significant component of her suffering arises from her belief that “all of this crap that I have to deal with every day, could have been avoided”, she said. “That just turns into bitterness and anger.”

Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene (35) died in 2017 from cervical cancer – she also had smear tests that were misread – spoke to Walsh in the wake of Morrissey’s death.

“He said he was so devastated, because he knew what Paul [Ruth Morrissey’s husband] was going through. They both know that their wives would be alive if their smears had been read correctly. That’s hard to let go.”

Walsh was among the original group of 221 women who learned in 2018 that audits of their slides in the period after they had been diagnosed with cervical cancer, showed that the smears had been misread. Instead of being clear, the audits showed that the slides contained material that should have flagged the women’s cases as deserving further inquiry. It was only in the wake of the case taken by Vicky Phelan that the women learned of what the audits had found.

That group of women has since been joined by others who were informed late last year that a review of their smear slides differed with the original readings made by the CervicalCheck screening process. In the case of 159 women, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (Rcog) review decided there had been a missed opportunity to prevent cancer, or diagnose it earlier.

In regard to another 149 woman, the review did not agree with the CervicalCheck findings, but concluded that this did not have an adverse effect on the women’s health outcomes.

As some of the women who took part in last year’s review were also part of the 221 group, the exact number of women involved is not clear. But 51 women have since died, according to Walsh, a significant proportion of the total number affected.

Lorraine Walsh, who suffers from life-altering conditions brought about by the successful but invasive treatments she received for cervical cancer, with Vicky Phelan. Photograph: Tom Honan / The Irish Times
Lorraine Walsh, who suffers from life-altering conditions brought about by the successful but invasive treatments she received for cervical cancer, with Vicky Phelan. Photograph: Tom Honan / The Irish Times

Lack of momentum

At one stage Walsh was a member of the steering committee set up to oversee the implementation of the Government’s response to the CervicalCheck controversy, but she resigned in December 2019 because of unhappiness with how the Rcog review had been conducted.

There is a widespread feeling among the affected women, their partners and their families that the momentum that existed since 2018 in relation to confronting the CervicalCheck controversy disappeared late last year. This too added to the backdrop of “unrest” sparked by Morrissey’s death, said Walsh.

A tribunal that was to provide an alternative to going to court was legislated for last year, but has yet to be established. The courts system itself is in crisis because of the coronavirus restrictions, with few cases being heard, and hardly any cases being settled outside of court.

And the efforts of the Department of Health to reform CervicalCheck, which had already begun to lose momentum, have been hit hard by the diversion, since March, of attention and resources to the Covid pandemic.

“As soon as the State’s apology was given [in October last], that was it. We’ve seen no momentum since,” said Walsh.

Despite having terminal cancer, Phelan has, since the settlement, campaigned in relation to the CervicalCheck programme and the issue of patients’ right to disclosure

According to a spokesman for the State Claims Agency (SCA), which handles the cases that are being taken against the HSE arising from the CervicalCheck debacle, there were 203 claims lodged as of July 16th last, of which eight were concluded. This compares with 85 claims, of which five were concluded, as of October of last year.