As the final episode of the Jade Goody documentary airs on channel 4, one woman reflects on how the tragic reality TV star probably saved her life – and countless others – by encouraging her to go for a smear test.
In 2009, the year Jade Goody died of cervical cancer at just 27 years old, almost 400,000 extra women attended cervical screenings, taking the overall number from 3.4 million to 3.7 million. Younger women made up the majority of this increase in numbers – and I was one of them.
Despite being relatively unfamiliar with the disease until Goody was diagnosed with it in a Big Brother diary room in India, I – like thousands of other women – became petrified that I might have it.
As Goody’s nightmare unfolded in the tabloids, magazines and broadsheet papers, on daytime talk shows and the nightly news, the conversation steered towards cervical cancer until we were all well-versed in the fact that a smear test could prevent us from suffering the same fate as poor Goody. One by one, friends and colleagues all began clamouring for appointments, all of us aghast at how long we had to wait due to the sudden spike in demand. The ‘Jade Goody effect’ was in full swing.
As I was 24 and under the age that the UK begins to offer mandatory cervical screening (which is 25), I had never been invited to attend a smear test before. But as I was experiencing some unusual symptoms – pain after sex, spotting between periods – my GP practice agreed to screen me. I considered myself lucky. One of my friends was refused a smear because she was only 23, despite having been sexually active for the past seven years.
When my results arrived in the post, my hands trembled when I read that I had ‘abnormal cells’. I didn’t understand what that meant. I was convinced that after being invited to have a colposcopy – which involved a closer look at my cervix under a microscope and wasn’t at all as unpleasant as it sounds – and having a biopsy taken, I would be given a cancer diagnosis.
However, the biopsy showed that while there were some cell changes present, they would likely return back to normal in time without any treatment. I would just need to attend annual screenings in order for them to monitor any further cell changes. I felt relieved and reassured.
But in 2011, at the age of 26, another smear test showed that there were some cell changes present again. I was terrified. This time, another colposcopy and biopsy showed that the changes were graded as CIN2, which describes the position and the severity of the changes. I was offered the option of having treatment to remove the cells, or waiting to see if they had returned to normal after six months.
Twelve weeks later and back in Sydney where I was then living, I decided I didn’t want to take the wait-and-see approach. Instead, I opted to undergo a LLETZ procedure, which removes the affected tissue by a thin wire with an electric current under general anaesthetic. Following the operation, my gynaecologist told me that she was glad we operated when we did as the cells had already progressed to CIN3, an estimated 12% of which cases progress to cancer if left untreated. I felt hugely relieved and grateful that I had followed my instinct.
It doesn’t feel trite to say that there’s every chance that Goody saved me from a cancer diagnosis. And yet, staggeringly, a decade after her death, attendance for cervical screening is at a 19 year low in England and a 10 year low in Scotland and Wales.
Right on cue, demands for women to attend their smear tests began echoing around Twitter as the three-part Channel 4 documentary surrounding Goody’s life concluded on 21 August. The in-depth documentary, called Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain, also explored Goody’s early life and the racism row that she became embroiled in while filming Celebrity Big Brother in 2007.
Goody was filmed calling Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty ‘Shilpa Poppadom’, and the show received numerous complaints. Goody later apologised to Shetty, and in the second part of the Channel 4 documentary, her mother said that Goody believed her cancer diagnosis might have been a punishment for what happened.
But before we berate anyone for not attending their screening, we need to tread with caution, urges Kate Sanger, head of communications at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
“One thing we know about cervical screening is that for a lot of women it’s a straightforward test, but for other women it can be quite difficult,” Sanger tells Stylist. She notes that embarrassment and a fear of what might happen during the test are just two of the hurdles standing in the way of women and their smear tests
“Survivors of sexual assault will obviously find it traumatic, and then there’s health conditions, physical disabilities, learning disabilities or cultural barriers than can affect awareness or our ability to take up an invite,” she explains. “So there’s really a wide range of different reasons, it’s quite complex.”
Sanger adds that she who would urge anyone who is reluctant to undergo screening to first talk through their fears with a friend or a female relative and arm themselves with information about what to expect.
As the country tuned in to watch the final episode of Channel 4’s documentary series about Goody, in which she is seen unflinchingly sharing her battle with the disease that ultimately claimed her life, it seemed her story was reaching a new generation.
“If any of you haven’t seen it. The #JadeGoody documentary on @Channel4 is a must watch… My daughter didn’t know who she was and was gripped. We are broken,” wrote Davina McCall.
“My chest is hurting from fighting back the urge to burst into tears,” wrote one viewer on Twitter. “Received my invite yesterday to book my first ever smear test, I know what I’ll be doing at 8am #JadeGoody.”
Another wrote: “Absolutely heart broken after watching the last Jade Goody ep. Despite her ups and downs, she’s left an incredible legacy to young people. I have my cervical screening booked and vow to never put it off again RIP Jade #JadeGoody.”
Her life might have been cut tragically short – but Goody’s legacy lives on.
If you’re at all apprehensive about cervical screening, a doctor shares exactly what happens during a smear test here, while Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has a wide range of information and resources available online, or call their free helpline on 0808 802 8000. Alternatively, head to the NHS information page.
Support for trans men and non-binary people with cervixes is available here.