Behind the scenes: How Vicky Phelan inspired the Read My Lips project

Today’s ‘Read My Lips’ initiative encouraging women to book a cervical screening test started over a long breakfast in a Limerick cafe
Behind the scenes: How Vicky Phelan inspired the Read My Lips project

On the first anniversary of Vicky Phelan’s death, we honour her legacy with our ‘Read My Lips’ initiative. Picture: Cathal Noonan

I met Vicky Phelan on June 21, 2019 at Hook & Ladder Cafe in Castletroy, Limerick, to discuss future projects. It was a blue-skied summer morning and once I saw Vicky’s huge smile — the one that could light up a stadium — I knew it was one of her good days. We ordered breakfast and the first round of tea, and started talking and talking. She was in terrific form, witty and acerbic.

I was aware of other days when she was laid low by her illness. We had first met six months earlier on a damp January day at her home in Limerick to discuss her guest-edited special edition of Feelgood to be published on International Women’s Day, March 8. 

Though she was in and out of hospital for a viral infection, she was determined to push through and get the edition out on time. The supplement covered a range of issues related to cervical cancer, from the latest drug therapies to sexual intimacy post-treatment, but she had one key message for readers: Get a smear test. 

For all her problems with CervicalCheck — a false negative reading in 2011 missed early-stage cervical cancer and a three-year delay before being told an audit had found the error — she wanted women to continue to undergo screening as it remains the best way to detect cervical cancer.

The difference in her energy at our midsummer’s day meeting in Castletroy was remarkable. The cutting-edge immunotherapy drug Pembro was working — her tumours had shrunk, and she was feeling much better. The grim vista of only having months to live in April 2018 after winning her case against Clinical Pathology Laboratories had receded. Now she was brimming with life and had a packed diary, which included plans for holidays abroad and at home, a book and a television documentary.

Somewhere between the second and third pot of tea, I suggested our next joint project, inspired by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust in Britain. Titled ‘Read My Lips’, we would ask high-profile women to wear lipstick and pose in front of the camera to encourage other women to get a cervical screening test. 

Her eyes immediately lit up — she loved the cheeky play on words and thought it would be a creative way to communicate the message.

Three hours and more had flown by and it was time to go — she had children to pick up. We decided to return to our plan after the summer holidays when Amelia and Darragh were back at school and she would have more time.

In the intervening months, however, Vicky’s health started to deteriorate once again. The final time we spoke about Read My Lips was in March 2021, following an interview she gave from Maryland, US, for the Irish Examiner’s International Women’s Day seminar.

After the cameras stopped rolling, we chatted freely on the video link about her latest treatment, day-to-day life in the US, and staying in touch with her children. Before signing off, she said she wanted to talk about “our project” when she returned home. But time was not on her side — we never got to have that follow-up conversation.

As the first anniversary of Vicky’s death approached, my Irish Examiner colleagues and I explored the possibility of running the Read My Lips initiative to honour her memory. The response we got from the outset has been nothing short of remarkable. Almost every high-profile woman we asked to attend our video and photo shoot said yes. All wanted to support and continue with Vicky’s call to action: Get your cervical screening test. Within days, sports broadcaster Jacqui Hurley, TV presenter Muireann O’Connell, beauty entrepreneur Aimee Connolly, authors Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght, lecturer and GP Sumi Dunne and 221+ founding member Lorraine Walsh had signed up.

The shoot happened in an outsized garage-style studio near the Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Run by Heritage, an award-winning creative media group, the day went like clockwork, with each celebrity going through the same schedule, hair, makeup, and styling before recording their script for video and posing for the photographer.

The mood was upbeat throughout the long day and the good vibes were infectious. We were all on a mission — including the production team, many of whom worked pro bono — to support Vicky’s legacy.

But every time one of the participants voiced the call to action (“Choose screening — book your cervical screening test today”) a hushed pause followed as we absorbed the life-saving significance of the message.

The Irish Cancer Society has given Read My Lips its support. “It is a fitting tribute to Vicky Phelan on the first anniversary of her death and all the other women who aren’t with us today because of cervical cancer. Despite her own experience, Vicky was a staunch champion of screening and tirelessly encouraged others to take up the offer when it was their turn. It is the promotion of screening that is such an important part of Vicky’s legacy, which will go on to save many lives.”

Vicky was not alone in promoting cervical cancer awareness. Lynsey Bennett, who died aged 34, just weeks before Vicky, and Emma Mhic Mhathúna, who died in 2018, at 37, forfeited their privacy to bring public attention to their misdiagnosis and warn other women about prioritising their health. Members of 221+, set up to support those affected by the CervicalCheck scandal, including Lorraine Walsh, also spoke openly about their experience of cervical cancer. Laura Brennan, who was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer at 25, devoted the final year of her life to promoting the HPV vaccine — a campaign that saw the uptake in secondary schools soar from 51% to 81% and to over 90% in her home county Clare.

Due to the successful rollout of the vaccine and new HPV testing, Ireland is now one of the first countries in the world to commit to cervical cancer elimination or fewer than four cases diagnosed for every 100,000.

Cervical screening offers women the best chance of early detection. Every year, it identifies and treats precancerous cells in 12,500 women. Many of these women could have developed cervical cancer — some 290 are diagnosed every year — if their rogue cells had not been found and treated in the initial stages.

Vicky wrote in her memoir Overcoming: “If even one young woman had a smear test because she heard me speak, and it helped her to avoid this awful illness, then it would be worthwhile.”

In today’s special Feelgood edition, we hope to do just that in memory of a trailblazing woman who left an extraordinary legacy.

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