Read My Lips: 'Vicky Phelan taught us it’s an empowerment to prioritise our health'

As we approach the first anniversary of campaigner Vicky Phelan’s death, seven high-profile women join forces to remind us of her core message: choose screening
Read My Lips: 'Vicky Phelan taught us it’s an empowerment to prioritise our health'

Clockwise from top left: Dr Sumi Dunne, Jacqui Hurley, Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght, Muireann O'Connell, Aimee Connolly, and Lorraine Walsh taking part in the Read My Lips project.

“It took someone like Vicky to stand up and change the way we think about ourselves... Whether you are a mother, have other responsibilities, or whatever is going on, it’s about stopping and booking that screening or taking that test”

Swipe through a gallery of photos from our Read My Lips photoshoot here:

'What happened to Vicky could happen to anyone'

Aimee Connolly, CEO and founder of Sculpted by Aimee

Aimee Connolly, Read My Lips
Aimee Connolly, Read My Lips

Cervical cancer is something that affects so many more people than we realise, so I’m encouraging people to have their screening test and to get screened because ultimately, it saves lives.

Vicky Phelan is one of those names and voices you couldn’t not be impacted by.

What she did was so admirable and so brave.

Her story and her journey, as well as the conversation she started in the midst of being very unwell, are unforgettable.

What happened to Vicky could have happened to any of us. It makes you think that it could be my mum, my sister, or my friend.

Until two or three years ago, I was terrible at putting my health first. Now, I’m in a much better routine of ticking off what I need to book: A cervical screening test, blood tests, and even getting my teeth cleaned. What I’d say to anyone reading this is to do your TLC checklist.

And if you do this annually, it will bring peace of mind. More importantly, it means you are being proactive about your health.

Ultimately, we all need to look after ourselves as best we can.

'It's 30 seconds that could change your life'

Sarah Breen, co-author of The Complete Aisling series

Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght, Read My Lips
Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght, Read My Lips

I’m here to remind you that you need to take control of your health. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself. Vicky made sacrifices in her own life: She had a young family, and she gave up so much time in her final years to advocate for Irish women. It was impossible not to be caught up in her enthusiasm for her work: She was just so tenacious.

I have given birth three times, and I still get nervous before a cervical-screening test.

When the letter comes in the post, I’ll put it to the back of things and say, ‘I’ll deal with that later’. But that attitude is now changing. It’s so important to get it done.

I want to be proactive about my health, because I want to be around for a very long time.

You don’t exactly relish going to the cervical-screening appointment, but I’ve never had a bad experience. I always tell the practitioner that I’m a little nervous, even though I’ve had three vaginal births. But I’ve always been so reassured.

I would go for a screening test before I’d go for an eyebrow wax, because it’s 30 seconds of mild discomfort that could save your life.

Emer McLysaght, co-author of The Complete Aisling series

Sarah and I met Vicky Phelan a few times over the years and were always inspired by her. Even when she was at what must have been one of her lowest ebbs, she was always so positive she kept going.

The fact that she gave up so much time when she had so little time left is what I admire about her most. If she could do that, then why can’t I get up off the couch and do even a small thing to help myself? It makes you think. The best part is that she continues to do that.

There are lots of different excuses and reasons why people might put off screening. I did it myself for ages. I was late getting my first smear test and didn’t do it when I should have. Then I went and finally did it, and it was nothing. There was absolutely nothing to worry about. I think there is a self-care issue in that people are like, ‘Ah, sure, I’m grand. It won’t happen to me.’ But people like Vicky have shown that it could happen to you, so why not get it done, get it over with, and just book it.

I booked my cervical screening smear, which was a bit overdue, this week, because I’m doing this initiative.

'We can't let these things go unnoticed anymore'

Jacqui Hurley, sports broadcaster

Jacqui Hurley, Read My Lips
Jacqui Hurley, Read My Lips

I’ve always had such admiration for Vicky. I can’t think of a person who had a bigger impact on Irish life than Vicky Phelan. That’s why, when I was asked to be involved in this initiative, it was such a simple ‘Yes’.

Vicky solved what has been Irish women’s problem all along — we can’t just let these things go unnoticed anymore. We can’t just sit and wait for these things to happen to us. It’s our health to protect. She taught us that it’s an empowerment to prioritise our health.

It took someone like her to stand up and change the way we think about ourselves, particularly in the busy lives we all lead. Whether you are a mother, have other responsibilities, or whatever is going on, it’s about stopping and booking that screening or taking that test.

Vicky taught us that it’s about putting ourselves first sometimes and that it’s probably the most important thing we can do.

Vicky was extraordinary in what she did, but she never saw herself that way. She was an ordinary woman doing extraordinary things.

Please book your screening test today.

'We now have improved screening, get your test'

Lorraine Walsh, founding member of patient support group 221+

Lorraine Walsh, Read My Lips 
Lorraine Walsh, Read My Lips 

Cervical cancer is a horrible disease, and it has horrible side effects. Cervical screening is about ensuring a preventable disease can be prevented. The screening programme let Vicky and me down in very different ways, but we always wanted to encourage women to get screening tests, not discourage them.

We didn’t have a very effective screening programme in Ireland before 2018. But we now have an improved screening programme, so it’s crucial that you get out there and take that hour out of your life just to do something for yourself that could actually save your life.

What I’d say to women is that you have to prioritise your health, and if something doesn’t feel right, it’s important to discuss it with your GP or nurse. It’s important to get it checked out.

When thinking about cervical screening, remember the doctors and the nurses don’t care about whether you had a wax last week or not. It doesn’t matter, so prioritise yourself because if you don’t, it may be too late.

'Use the programme that's there for you'

Muireann O’Connell, television presenter

Muireann O'Connell, Read My Lips
Muireann O'Connell, Read My Lips

I feel honoured to have met and spoken with Vicky Phelan as a result of my job.

The overriding thing I took away from those encounters was her belief, both in the importance of the screening programme and encouraging people to go to CervicalCheck.

If just one person sees Vicky’s name today and decides to make that appointment, it’ll be a good day.

Vicky inspired so many because she said it as it was. Through all the pain and cruel injustice, she never seemed to let anger and bitterness overtake her.

Vicky has become almost superhuman in our collective consciousness because of all that she achieved in the too short time she had on this planet.

While she spent so much time educating people on not being afraid to question authority, and taking control of their health, she was also a person who loved a joke, music, and her children.

If you’ve put off your appointment, or perhaps you have a feeling something is different in your body but you’ve convinced yourself you’re overthinking, please go to the doctor.

Not every country has a screening programme. We do. Please make use of it.

'Don't be scared, testing can be easily accessed'

Sumi Dunne, GP Portarlington, Co Laois, and lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

Dr Sumi Dunne, Read My Lips
Dr Sumi Dunne, Read My Lips

Vicky singlehandedly pushed to the forefront the importance of getting regular screening, which remains our foremost fight against a devastating disease, together with the advent of the HPV vaccine.

Vicky’s story resonated with many because she was so real. Everything she did was so that nobody else would have the journey she had. Women came forward about their health because of Vicky, and that’s what made her advocacy so amazing.

However, it did something else too. She signposted women to attend their GPs, to check if they were due a cervical screening test, to ask about symptoms related to women’s health and see what we as GPs could do for them.

What I’d say to women is this: Don’t be scared, free cervical screening is easily accessible through your GP. It doesn’t have to be your own GP either — you can go to any registered clinic. Please go and book today. Screening saves lives.

Interviews by Amanda Cassidy.


Creative agency: Heritage

Photographer: Naomi Gaffey 

Photography assistant: Mark Sosiak

Styling: Gráinne Dwyer, clothes from Brown Thomas and Zara 

Makeup: Sculpted by Aimee 

Makeup artists: Aoife McCole and Jordan Murray 

Hair: Stephanie Nwambu

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