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Friday 22 September 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Health Service Executive Laura Brennan
# laura brennan
'You can't really dwell on questions': How Laura Brennan used her terminal cancer to help others
The 26 year-old died of cancer in Limerick yesterday.

SIX MONTHS BEFORE her death at the age of 26, Laura Brennan was awarded the first ever Patient Advocacy Medal by the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland.

The medal, presented at the launch of a HPV vaccination programme by the HSE, recognised her advocacy in trying to get more young women to take up the vaccine.

“What Laura has done is immeasurable,” the Royal College of Physicians said at the time.

“The increased uptake rate of 65%… shows that efforts to raise awareness of the importance of the vaccine are working and Laura has greatly contributed to that.”

But for Laura, it almost wasn’t enough.

In a speech that left some at the RHA Gallery in tears, she spoke about how cancer had robbed her of her life, how it would rob her parents of their daughter, how she would never have children, and how the disease continued to get stronger as she got weaker.

“65% isn’t where I want the vaccine rates to be,” she said.

“As you all know, I won’t be happy until as many of our girls are protected as possible and until boys are included in the vaccination programme.

“But at least it’s going in the right direction.”

Positive outlook

Laura first contacted the HSE in September 2017, after she received a diagnosis of terminal cervical cancer at the age of 25.

Although she initially went through treatment and was predicted to have a good chance of recovering, the cancer eventually spread to her lymph nodes.

Her terminal diagnosis came after an incorrect suggestion that she had a possible bacterial infection from a retained tampon, and an incorrect all-clear after cancer was eventually detected.

Two months after receiving the MRI scan that gave her an all-clear, another doctor told her that her cancer had moved to her chest and that palliative care was among her only options.

But rather than waiting to die, Laura remained positive, claiming that even her nurse thought she was “mental” when she was told her cancer had metastased.

“You can’t really dwell on the questions like ‘why did this happen to me?’” she said at the time.

“I’m only 25, this isn’t supposed to happen to women my age. You have to keep positive about everything.”

Laura Brennan HSE Laura Brennan appears in a HPV vaccination campaign video last year HSE

Laura was too old to get the HPV vaccine when it was first rolled out in Irish schools, but became annoyed by misconceptions about cervical cancer and rumours about the vaccine’s safety after her diagnosis.

She recalls how people told her that cervical cancer was one of the best cancers to get because it was so treatable.

“Even if cervical cancer can be treated and cured, the treatment itself is horrendous,” she recalled.

“Nobody would like to see their daughter go through that.”

With that in mind, she became determined to tell her story to every Irish parent who was considering a decision about vaccinating their daughter against HPV.

“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,” she said.

“I just wanted parents to know there is an alternative.”

‘I’ll be in pain’

Laura’s campaign started with her appearance in a HSE video last March 2018, when the service rolled out the second phase of its HPV vaccine information campaign.

In the video, she spoke of her previous optimism that her cancer could be cured and of the false hope that there was a “good chance” she could be cured.

“The vaccine saves lives,” she said. “It could have saved mine.”

The video received hugely positive reaction following its launch, and led to Laura’s appearance on The Late Late Show the following month.

The Late Late Show / YouTube

In a frank interview with Ryan Tubridy, she spoke about the reality of living with cancer and her fears about what would happen as her health continued to deteriorate.

“Sometime in the future, there might not be a cure for my cancer and I will be in pain, and I won’t be able to get out of bed,” she said.

I know my parents will take good care of me like they always do – I’m so lucky. But they’ll come up and ask me am I okay, and I’ll be in pain.
I know I’ll tell them I’m grand, or I’ll crack a joke, and they’ll give me a smile back. But in their eyes, I’ll see pain.

After her interview, the World Health Organisation (WHO), invited Laura to bring her advocacy of the HPV vaccine across Europe.

She visited the WHO’s European headquarters in Copenhagen to discuss her work, and consulted with them about how to increase the uptake of the vaccine.

Then in September, as Laura launched the latest stage of the HSE’s vaccination campaign and collected her award from the Royal College of Physicians, the health service revealed the uptake rate had risen to 65%, an increase of 15% in previous year.

Internal Department of Health documents seen by regarding the launch reveal how Minister Simon Harris sought to recognise Laura’s contribution to this figure.

Speech notes state how the Minister sought to “acknowledge Laura and her ongoing advocacy work”, while she was also on a list of invited guests who the Minister wanted to meet.

Once again, Laura gave a forthright address to Irish parents to consider the vaccine, reminding them of what her own parents were going through with her.

“You don’t want to have to look into your child’s eyes and tell them you could have saved them from a HPV-related cancer,” she said.

“Because even if it doesn’t end their life, it will leave them damaged for life – damaged from cancer and damaged from treatment.”

Generous spirit

Last week, as Laura’s health continued to deteriorate, the HSE confirmed that parents and children seemed to be getting her message.

Latest figures from the executive showed that the uptake rate for the vaccine had reached 70%, an increase of 20 percentage points in just over two years.

Despite being in the final days of her illness, Laura continued to campaign and express optimism that the trend was continuing upwards.

“I’m thrilled that people are listening… to the reality of what life with cervical cancer is really like and finding out for themselves that this vaccine is safe and effective,” she said.

It wasn’t expected that her death would come just over a week later.

Her passing at University Hospital Limerick was announced by the executive yesterday evening.

Among those to pay tribute to her were Minister for Health Simon Harris, who said the State owed her “a debt of gratitude”, and HSE interim director Anne O’Connor, who recognised the difference her campaigning had made.

“Laura has defined courage and generosity as she supported our work to ensure girls get the HPV vaccine, and are protected from this terrible cancer,” she said. 

“We know that Laura has made a difference, and will have saved lives through her great effort and her tremendous generosity of spirit.”

Her family said she wanted to make a difference, and to use the time that she had to “right what she felt was a great wrong”.

Few believed that time would end so soon.

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