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12th Sep 2019

Review: Vicky Phelan’s book comes out today and it’s a serious tearjerker

Leslie Ann Horgan

“One of the saddest but most uplifting stories I have ever read”

To hear Vicky Phelan talk about the events of last year is somewhat jarring. Was it really only in 2018 that she spoke to the press on the steps of the Four Courts? Was it was it really only last year that we learned about the cervical cancer scandal?

So many more revelations about the cervical cancer screening service have come to light since then that it feels like years and not just 17 months since Vicky took her brave stance.

She may be a household name thanks to her tireless campaigning for justice and women’s health activism, but I knew very little about Vicky Phelan the woman until I read her new memoir, Overcoming.

It’s simultaneously both one of the saddest and most uplifting stories I have ever read.

The book begins in rural Co Kilkenny, where as the eldest of five children Vicky enjoyed a carefree childhood. A mix of mischievous and studious – she insisted on being sent to school a year early – Vicky clearly knew her own mind from a young age.

After finishing school she enrolled in UL, and in her first year of college, in 1994, she travelled to France for a six-month Erasmus programme. There, her life wold be changed forever.

While working at hotel near Péronne she met and fell in love with a young French man. Both were caught up in the giddy flush of romance when tragedy struck. In detail that must have been excruciating for the author to recall, we read how the lovebirds were involved in a car crash that left two dead and two others, including Vicky, gravely injured.

Recovering from both her injuries and her grief would be a long road for Vicky – and, sadly, life had many more challenges in store for her.

The book charts Vicky’s extremely difficult pregnancy, followed by a period of post natal depression. Then, when her daughter was seven, she was involved in a terrible accident when a spark from the fireplace set her dress alight. It’s clear as you read this chapter, and the heart-wrenching detail of Amelia’s injuries, that it’s an episode that is still very raw for Vicky and her husband, Jim.

And still to come, of course, was her cancer diagnosis, and the later discovery of the clinical audit that had overturned the results of an earlier negative smear test. Heartbreakingly, in the three years that this result was kept from Vicky her cancer went from treatable to terminal. My own tears flowed freely as I read how, to use Vicky’s own words, cervical cancer “takes away your sense of being a woman”.

What comes across at all times in this book is the author’s brutal honesty. She’s incredibly candid in detailing her financial struggles, the strains on her marriage, her cancer treatment and how it destroyed her sex life – in short, all of the things that Irish people are notoriously bad at talking about.

Vicky has said that she hopes that the book would be a reassurance to anyone going through similar experiences to hers, and a reminder for the rest of us to appreciate what we have in life. Reading it certainly gave me a huge dollop of perspective on my own ‘troubles’.

Overcoming is an emotional read that’s harrowing in parts, but is positive and inspiring in many others. Time and again I was taken aback by Vicky’s resilience and her strength. At the end of the book, she writes that “we all have that strength in us, the strength to fight for what’s right in the world”. I don’t know if that would be true of me if I’d faced half of what Vicky Phelan has had to deal with in her life – but we should all be honoured that she’s out there fighting for us.

Overcoming, by Vicky Phelan with Naomi Lineman, is published by Hachette Ireland at €14.99.

Vicky’s Overcoming book tour is proudly supported by Her. It begins with a live talk at Clontarf Castle this Sunday, September 15. Tickets cost €20, which includes a copy of the book, and can be purchased here. Vicky will also be speaking in Cork and Limerick later this month.