Laura Brennan contacted the HSE in September 2017. At 25, after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cervical cancer, she wanted to advocate publicly in favour of the HPV Vaccine
She was determined that every parent in Ireland who was about to make the decision whether their child was to be vaccinated, 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.” said Laura at the time.
HSE HPV Vaccine Campaign
She began working alongside the HSE’s HPV Vaccine campaign, launching an online video campaign. She captured the heart of the nation when she took to the Late Late Show couch to chat to Ryan Tubridy in April 2018.
Despite Laura’s poor prognosis, she was determined not to lose her zest for life and amazing positivity. “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.”
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 – 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.
Following treatment, an MRI showed no sign of cancer but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
Two months later, she got the news. “They were able to tell me that the cancer had metastased.
Laura felt 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 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
The HPV vaccine was not available to Laura when she was in secondary school.
“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.
Advocacy and Recognition
The World Health Organisation (WHO) invited Laura to extend her advocacy of the vaccine across Europe, and she visited the WHO’s European headquarters in Copenhagen to discuss her advocacy of the vaccine. Laura was given an honorary doctorate of literature by University College Dublin and has received many awards and medals in recognition of her advocacy.
Read Laura's September 2018 speech, delivered at the launch of the HPV vaccine campaign here.
Thank you Laura
Sadly, Laura Brennan passed away on the 20th March 2019 in University Hospital Limerick.
Thank you Laura, from everyone in the health service, for all you have done.
To get the facts, visit www.hpv.ie
The RTÉ documentary Laura Brennan: This is Me is available to watch on the RTÉ Player