Cervical cancer campaigner, 26, warns other young women to get the HPV vaccine

Cervical cancer campaigner, 26, warns other young women to get the HPV vaccine

  • Laura Brennan, 26, from Co. Clare, Ireland, died from cervical cancer in March
  • She advocated for the HPV vaccine, which helps protect women against cancer  
  • The campaigner asked to be filmed lying in her coffin after her death
  • She hoped the shocking moment would encourage women to get the vaccine 

A woman who died from cervical cancer at the age of just 26 insisted on being filmed in her coffin after her death.

Laura Brennan, from Ennis, County Clare, was diagnosed with the disease aged 24 in 2016, and became a passionate campaigner for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which helps protect young women against cervical cancer. 

In a bid to draw attention to the cause, Laura allowed a camera crew to document the final weeks of her life - and insisted the producers filmed her body lying in repose in order to highlight the issue. 

Her hope was that the resulting documentary, Laura Brennan: This Is Me, which is airing on the RTE Player, would encourage young women to seek out the vaccine and prompt concerned parents to vaccinate their daughters. 

Laura lost her battle with the disease in March at the age of 26.

Explaining her reasoning, Laura said in the documentary: 'It'll be hard to film when I'm on my deathbed, but if seeing me in that position stops someone from having to be in my position, I will film for as long as that takes.'

She added: 'What kills me though is that all of this could have been prevented ... I am the reality of an un-vaccinated girl.' 

'My dad always said, "no parent should outlive their child," but the reality is there is a vaccine there to protect girls from getting cervical cancer and protect parents like mine from outliving their daughters.'

In England, girls aged 12 to 13 are offered the first HPV vaccination, with a second dose offered 6 to 12 months afterwards. Girls who miss the vaccine can request it from their GPs. 

In Ireland, a similar vaccination programme commenced in 2010 although vaccinations dropped to a rate of 50 per cent at one point following a vocal campaign which linked the vaccine to chronic illness, despite there being no scientific evidence.

The documentary shows Laura spending time with her parents, Larry and Bernadette, and her brothers, Colin, Fergal and Kevin, as the family works to create lasting memories together. 

In one poignant scene, Laura asks the family to gather for a photo in a Santa's Grotto in December last year. 

'I know in my heart that there is a very strong chance that it's my last Christmas here so it's important to have as many memories as possible,' she cried.

Cameras were also rolling as the family said their final goodbyes to Laura. 

Laura also spoke about the 'horrendous' abuse she received from trolls because of the type of cancer she had. 

In some of the comments she received, people said she was 'brainwashed' and her illness was 'deserved' and told her she did 'not have a clue what she’s supporting'. 

'The thing about having a HPV-related cancer is there can be a stigma around it because HPV is an STD but around 80 per cent of people will get it at some stage of their life,' she said.

'The majority of cervical cancer cases happen to women in their 40s and 50s when they a family, but because I am a younger woman people think they can attack me.' 

The campaigner was first diagnosed with stage 2B cervical cancer in 2016. 

The following year, Laura contacted the Health Service Executive (HSE) and expressed an interest in publicly supporting the campaign for the HPV vaccine. 

In recent years uptake of the HPV vaccine in Ireland fell dramatically due to unconfirmed theories about its 'adverse' side effects. However, thanks in part to Laura advocating for the vaccine, uptake rose to 70 per cent this year, up from 51 per cent. 

'I would like the vaccine to be 100 per cent that is the legacy I want to leave behind,' she said.

From September 2019, the HSE will begin to offer the HPV9 vaccine (Gardasil 9) to all students in first year in second level schools. It will be offered free of charge. 

Girls in the UK can get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine free from the NHS from the age of 12 up to their 25th birthday.

Appearing in a campaign video in 2018, Laura explained she felt optimistic when she was first diagnosed at the age of 24 as she was told she could receive chemotherapy and radiation treatment. 

However, two months after she was first given the all-clear, her cancer returned, and the prognosis was very different. 

'There is no treatment that will cure my cancer,' she said in the video. 'There is only treatment that will prolong my life.

'If anything good comes out of this I would hope that parents would get their daughters vaccinated. It saves lives, and it could have saved mine.' 

Speaking in the film, Laura said: 'Cancer can change your body in a lot of ways, and change your thinking in a lot of ways, but it was never going to change who I am.'

In the final months of her life, Laura received a string of honours in recognition of her advocacy work including the inaugural Patient Advocate Medal from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. She also received an honorary doctorate from University College Dublin. 

Speaking after her death, Laura's family said she was a 'light in the life of everyone who knew her'. 

They have vowed to continue to spread her message of advocacy for the HPV vaccine.

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