On the 10th anniversary of Jade Goody’s death, we look at the impact she had on cervical cancer awareness, and what still needs to be done.
“I think if it wasn’t for Jade Goody, I’d be dead.”
It’s a powerful statement about a reality TV star, but that sentence by Claire Thresher is one that will resonate with many women.
Goody – who found fame in the third series of reality TV show Big Brother in 2002 – is an unlikely saviour. While she was criticised by the British press for her perceived lack of decorum, she endeared herself to the public with her down-to-earth attitude and her honesty.
However, Goody later proved a controversial figure, after an appearance on the 2007 series of Celebrity Big Brother ended prematurely due to her racist bullying of fellow contestant Shilpa Shetty – something which Goody later said made her feel ashamed.
The pair were reconciled when they met again in Mumbai on Bigg Boss, the Indian version of the show, a year later. However, it was during the show that Goody was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Her illness rapidly developed, and she died on 22 March, 2009.
Mourned after her death, at the age of just 27, Goody’s experience led to a spike in the numbers of women taking up cervical screenings.
Among those women was Thresher, who was five years’ overdue to have a screening, put off because she felt embarrassed. A fan of Goody’s, as Thresher watched Goody explain her symptoms, Thresher realised she’d been experiencing much the same.
“I had extremely bad pain in the lower part of my stomach, I was having blood clots and it was painful when me and my husband were having sex,” Thresher tells Stylist. “My eyes were opened by Jade.”
Thresher talked through her symptoms with her doctor, but still wanted to put off the smear test to the next day. But luckily her doctor persuaded her to go ahead: “As soon as I lay down and the doctor looked, she said there was definitely something wrong. Two days later I had my results back.”
Those results showed a cluster of cells which were changing into cancerous cells. Doctors removed these, and they were caught early enough that Thresher didn’t need to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Instead, she went for six-monthly check-ups, and now has the all-clear, meaning she only has to have a screening every three years.
Thresher is not alone in being prompted by Goody to have a screening. In the months after Goody’s diagnosis, an extra 400,000 women went for tests, according to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Many of these were young women, a group that is more likely to not take up tests.
Robert Music, the chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, recalls the enormous impact that Goody’s story had on the public.
“It was immediate,” he tells Stylist. “It felt as if from the time she was diagnosed to time she passed away, she was in the news every single day. It was quite extraordinary.
“She was very up front about her treatment and diagnosis.”
Goody’s honesty combined with the media coverage resonated particularly with younger women, says Music.
“It was her age group that went for screenings then,” he says. “That was important because it was those women who were eligible for the first time or were perhaps delaying going.”
But while the spike in those taking up screenings was huge, 10 years later the picture is not so encouraging: England is currently facing a 21-year low in screening uptake, according to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
A range of factors have contributed to this, from nerves and fear of embarrassment for younger women, to older women thinking screenings aren’t as relevant to them. Women aged 25-35 also fear being out of control during the test, according to research conducted by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, while for women from ethnic minority backgrounds there are sometimes cultural issues.
But one of the biggest barriers, which the trust is campaigning to eradicate, is access. “Women are finding it harder and harder to get an appointment,” says Music.
In addition to difficulty getting time off work for an appointment, Music says the decline in government funding for sexual health clinics has meant a large number of women who preferred going there over their GPs are no longer getting tests done: there has been a 73% fall in opportunities to be screened at sexual health services.
While the trust is calling for an overhaul in investment and the way cervical screening is offered - a review is currently being undertaken - there are other things being trialled, including HPV self-sampling, which can be done at home.
Testing, says Music, can help detect early signs of cancer, leading to less invasive treatments and better outcomes. “There’s not enough knowledge that a smear test is a test to prevent cancer,” says Thresher.
Whatever the barriers, women should always feel comfortable and in control during their appointments.
“We understand this test is not easy for people,” he says. “It’s important before someone gets that they feel informed, they understand what’s going to happen, and they feel comfortable asking questions, or asking the test be stopped if it’s painful.”
Thresher puts it a different way: “I often come across people who have bikini waxes but are afraid of going for a smear test, but I tell them that having a bikini wax is more painful than a smear test. I try to explain to people that doctors are professionals and a test can save your life.”
A test, and Goody, certainly saved Thresher’s life: “If it wasn’t for her, who knows what would have happened to me.”
Images: Getty / supplied