Laura Brennan from Co. Clare contacted the HSE in September 2017. She wanted to advocate publicly in favour of the HPV Vaccine after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cervical cancer.
At the age of just 25, she was determined that every parent in Ireland who was about to make the decision whether their daughter was to be vaccinated against HPV, would hear her story first.
“This illness is devastating and it’s going to take my life but the good news is there’s a vaccine that you can get that prevents it. HPV caused my cancer. I just wanted parents to know there is an alternative.” says Laura
HSE HPV Vaccine Campaign
She began working alongside the HSE’s HPV Vaccine campaign, launching an online video campaign.
Since the Launch
Laura captured the heart of the nation when she took to the Late Late Show couch to chat to Ryan Tubridy. In recent months, the World Health Organisation (WHO), has invited Laura to extend her advocacy of the vaccine across Europe, and she has visited the WHO’s European headquarters in Copenhagen to discuss her advocacy of the vaccine.
“You just have to keep going. There’s always worse – children are being diagnosed with cancer every day, people are being blown up. Maybe it won’t be the cancer that gets me in the end, maybe I will be hit by a bus. You just can’t give in.”
Despite Laura’s poor prognosis, she’s determined not to lose her zest for life and amazing positivity.
Diagnosis and Early Treatment
The first sign that something was wrong was irregular cervical bleeding.
“As a sales rep, I was always on the road so it was tough to find time to go to see the doctor. After a few weeks, I decided to go to a GP on my lunch to finally see what the story was and had a smear. A week later she rang me to tell me that it looked like it was a bacterial infection, possibly from a retained tampon, but the results of the smear were not yet back. She asked me to pop back into her in Cork. But I’m based in Clare so I told her I’d check in with my local GP,” she explained.
“When I went to my GP, there were lots of clots and loads of bleeding and when she did an internal examination of my cervix, there were signs of a large growth on my cervix. I was urgently checked into hospital and was given an ultrasound. It showed up a growth so I was given an MRI and sent on to the clinic for a biopsy. The head gynaecologist was called down to meet with me so I knew it had to be bad news. I asked him if there was any chance that it wasn’t cancer and he just told me that he didn’t think so.
“I had stage 2B cervical cancer –that’s basically a 7cm tumour and would be seen as fairly severe.”
She met her radiation oncologist and had a PET scan, a more advanced scan.
“They could see that the tumour had spread to my lymph nodes in my pelvis and that I would need 28 sessions of radiation therapy, five sessions of chemotherapy and three sessions of brachytheraphy [internal radiation]” said Laura.
Two months later, an MRI gave her the all clear but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
A PET scan, the lymph nodes in her chest lit up.
Two months to the day that Laura was given her all-clear, she was told that it had moved to the chest.
“They were able to tell me that the cancer had metastased. I met my oncologist about it for the first time this week and the only options really are standard palliative chemotherapy or wait to get on a trial.”
She admits that she gets annoyed by people who don’t realise how serious cervical cancer.
“People have told me that it’s the best cancer to get because it is so treatable. Even if you do beat cervical cancer, it has a 60pc chance of recurring within five years. And if it comes back, there is no stopping it then,” said Laura.
“Even if cervical cancer can be treated and cured, the treatment itself is horrendous. Nobody would like to see their daughter go through that. The brachytherapy is basically internal radiation. This meant I had to go up to Dublin to the Mater hospital, go under anaesthetic, have an epidural and have four rods inserted into my cervix. Then I was woken up, I had an MRI and CT scan. After all that, I had to lie flat for hours hooked up to a machine to actually get the radiation.. I literally had wires coming out of my body. And I had to go through that three times in addition to all the other treatment.
Laura has maintained her positive attitude to life throughout her treatment.
“You can’t really dwell on the questions like why did this happen to me? I’m only 25, this isn’t supposed to happen to women my age. You have to keep positive about everything. When they told me that I would never have children, that the treatment would send me straight into the menopause, I said, that’s fine, at least the cancer will be cured. I can be thankful for that. People are dying every day,” said Laura.
“Even when the doctors told me that the cancer had metastased, meaning it was basically incurable, the nurse was looking at my reaction like I was mental. I just said ‘ah okay’. The doctor told her, ‘that’s how Laura is.’”
Laura on the HPV Vaccine
Laura was too old to get the vaccine when it was first rolled out in Irish schools.
“I wish the vaccine had been available to me, of course I do. Don’t get swayed by rumours about the vaccine’s safety– get the vaccine,” she insisted.
Work and Life
“I always worked throughout my first round of treatment. I would go to my radiation every morning and then get back to work.
“I have had to quit that job now as it was a high-pressure, fast-paced environment and I didn’t think I would be able to do my best. I’m working part time to keep myself busy.”
“You can’t really put a number on it. Basically having cancer is about buying time until a cure can be found. You don’t want to throw in the towel because you might as well just give up.”
Read Laura's most recent speech here.
To get the facts, visit www.hpv.ie