Co Armagh mum with stage three cervical cancer reveals three smear tests misread over a decade

A mother of four from Co Armagh who has advanced-stage cervical cancer has revealed how three of her smear tests over almost a decade were all misread - giving 'normal' results.

Erin Harbinson from Tandragee was diagnosed in 2021, but was only told those vital health checks were incorrect just ahead of the announcement of a review into 17,500 women’s smears in the Southern Trust.

The Southern Health and Social Care Trust has apologised "for failures in the care provided to this lady". It said Erin's case helped lead the establishment of reviews and urged anyone with concerns to get in touch.

Doctors have told 44-year-old Erin that if the abnormal cells had been caught sooner she would not be in the position she is in today, and that there are a number of other women like her - including one who has already died.

“My life has changed forever," the classroom assistant told UTV. "My children's lives have changed forever. I will never be who I was before.

"I am desperately trying to get back better. It's not going to happen because of physical problems, but I'm doing my best but knowing that things will never be the same again.

“This to date has been four years of my life that has been in and out of a cancer hospital, blood tests, emergency procedures, kidney failure, radiation therapy, chemotherapy which are all absolutely horrendous.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. It’s dreadful. And I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

Erin collapsed in unbearable abdominal pain in July 2021 but it would take weeks before she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

“Eventually in August after biopsies and tests and results. I was told that I had stage 2b cervical cancer," she said.

"I was asked at that time if I would be okay if they could do a smear audit on the last ten years of my smears, that it was a routine thing. No need to worry. And I said, that's fine. Go on ahead. I never thought any more of it after that, thinking that it would be okay."

But everything was not okay.

Erin was brought into a meeting with doctors in Craigavon Hospital to discuss the findings of the audit in September last year more than two years after her diagnosis and just weeks ahead of a major review into 17,500 women’s smear tests in the Southern Trust.

That was set up following a damning report by the Royal College of Pathologists revealing smear test results had been misread from as far back as 2007.

She said: “They told me that three of my smears had been missed. One at the very beginning. Okay. You know, maybe he was an experienced man. He could see it. 

"But then after that a blind man could have picked it up and that it was a definite case of they should have definitely been reported as positive, but they weren't. And that I was handed some forms to seek counselling. And I was told that a serious adverse incident would be reported and that was that I was sent off on my merry way to deal with it.”

Erin said the news was devastating: “It was like my world had just come out from underneath me. The one thing you're always told when you get a cancer diagnosis is this isn't your fault.

"Please don't ever think this is your fault. This is nothing that you've ever done. It's nobody's fault. Cancers, just one of them things And I came out thinking, no, this is somebody's fault. They did this to me. They've killed me in a way they’ve  taken my life away. 

"I have a chronic illness that I have to live with for the rest of my days.

"I asked him. I said, what does this mean? And he said, and say, how they've been reported on correctly. And in the very least, he says, you would have ended up with a colposcopy, perhaps a hysterectomy. He said, but you would not be sitting in the position you're in now with advanced cancer.

"I just felt so left down to the system that I had trusted all my life. And they just let me down."

Erin was also told in the meeting there were other women like her with cancer whose smear test results were misread, including one who had recently died.

“He told me that some women opted not to know. That's when you're initially called in. It's on the checklist. Would you like to know your results? Yes or no? And some women opted not to know their results, which is fair enough, that’s up to them. I hope they're all okay.

"And then he was able to tell me that there was a small group of women that were quite similar to myself.

"He was also able to tell me that one had passed away recently, that he knew of but he never mentioned a specific number. No, but there are others. I wasn't on my own."

Despite her experiences Erin is still urging women to go for their smear tests.

She said: “I would definitely encourage women to keep going for their tests. However, no matter what the result, I would really encourage women to listen to their bodies.

"Look for the other signs. I went to my doctor in the middle of those three years with quite bad periods, bad bleeding. And of course, you know, the first thing she did was look on the screen. 

“When was your last smear? Of course, it was all fine. We had no reason to think it would be anything to do with cervical cancer.

"What I would say to any woman is really advocate for yourself. Don't stop shout loud if you're having symptoms. Please keep on, shout loud,” Erin added.

Erin says she’s speaking out to help protect other women - her 12-year-old daughter Connie among them.

“Absolutely everybody. Every woman I know, my children, my boys’ future wives, my daughter, my future daughter in law and all the women I work with, everybody," she said.

"I'm doing this to empower you, not to frighten you. But unfortunately, I have to tell you the truth, and this is what has happened to me. Please learn from this."

A Southern Health and Social Care Trust spokesperson said: “We apologise for failures in the care provided to this lady.

"Whilst we do not comment on any individual case, we can confirm that issues identified in this case were escalated for further investigation/action by The Trust.

"This case helped lead to the establishment of The Royal College of Pathology Review and The Cervical Screening Review.

"For any woman who has unfortunately received a diagnosis of cervical cancer, we review all aspects of their previous smear tests as part of the audit of invasive cervical cancers to identify any learning that will help improve the screening programme.

"The Trust is working towards completing the Cervical Screening Review in the next few months. It is important to emphasise the fact that cervical screening is not a diagnostic test (rather it is for people without symptoms and aims to detect early changes which could go on to develop into cervical cancer if left untreated). Anyone with symptoms should always seek advice from their GP.

"The Southern Trust and Public Health Agency continue to urge women to continue come forward for their smear tests when invited. Almost all cervical cancers (99.7%) are caused by persistent infection with high-risk types of HPV.

"The Northern Ireland Cervical Screening Programme introduced full primary HPV testing into the cervical screening pathway in December 2023.

"The full integration of HPV testing has brought N.Ireland in line with similar programmes in the rest of the UK and Republic of Ireland, making the screening more accurate and more effective at identifying those at greatest risk.

"The screening test, often known as a ‘smear test’, checks a sample of cells from your cervix for certain types of HPV. If high-risk HPV is detected during screening, the sample will also be checked for abnormal cell changes.

"The HPV test is a better indicator than cytology of identifying which women are at risk of developing cervical cancer. The Cervical Screening Review is looking back at the old model. HPV is a common virus, and, in most cases, it will be cleared by the body’s immune system and have no adverse health impact. It is only when the virus persists, that it can cause cell changes in the cervix which, with time, can develop into cancer.

"We also urge anybody with concerns to contact our dedicated Helpline for this Cervical Review which is open Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm on 0800 9520255.

"Alternatively, you can email or visit the Southern Trust Website at following the link to the Cervical Screening Review Information Page."

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