Why it's time to reboot Jade Goody's cervical smear test legacy

Cervical screening attendance is at a 20 year low [Photo: Getty]
Cervical screening attendance is at a 20 year low [Photo: Getty]

On the tenth anniversary of Jade Goody’s death, doctors warn that the number of women attending their cervical smear tests has hit a 20-year low.

Jade tragically died on March 22, 2009, at just 27, after being diagnosed with advance with cervical cancer.

Before her death the mum-of-two campaigned to raise awareness of the importance of having a cervical screening, having herself ignored a letter saying abnormal cells were found on her cervix.

And initially her pleas to get tested had an impact with the number of women attending screening rising by half a million.

Sadly, however, the so-called “Jade Goody effect” seems to be wearing off with stats released last year revealing just 71% of women are attending regular screenings.

What’s more the lack of attendance is spanning all generations. Previous research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and Gransnet found that one in three women over 50 has delayed or not attended their cervical screening test, with the average delay being of more than two years, while 10% delayed having a smear test for over five years.

Cervical screenings, better known as smear tests, are free on the NHS for all women aged between 25 and 64 and can detect the early signs of cervical cancer before the “abnormal cells” become cancerous.

But putting off or not attending a smear could have serious consequences as the charity also predicted that by 2040 cases of cervical cancer could increase by 16% among 60-64 year olds and by 85% among 70-74 year olds if screening uptake remains at the same level.

READ MORE: Woman has smear test on live TV

So how do we re-encourage women to get over their smear fear?

Jo’s Trust previously asked what would encourage more women to attend a screening: 21% said more flexible GP opening hours, 38% said being sent an appointment time with their cervical screening invitation, 31% wanted more information relevant to their age, 23% said more information about the risks of not attending.

Meanwhile almost one in four (23%) who had delayed attending said they would like the opportunity to HPV self test.

Interestingly, that last request may well be a possibility.

DIY testing

In a bid to encourage women to take a smear test, DIY self-sampling kits (that can be taken at home) could soon be available to women as part of NHS England.

The kit, which tests for human papillomavirus (the virus which causes 99% of cervical cancer cases), will be sent to women by post.

“I think if we find it is successful, it might well be able to reach people who aren’t being reached by the current service,” Professor Sir Mike Richards, the government’s former cancer director for England and who is leading a review of cancer screening, told MPs at the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

“We need to improve the convenience for patients – better access in terms of out-of-hours services, better access in terms of [clinics] close to where people work – but on top of that we may get to a different segment of the population by offering HPV self-sampling sets through the post.”

Cervical screening attendance is at a 20 year low [Photo: Getty]
Cervical screening attendance is at a 20 year low [Photo: Getty]

The celebrity effect

In a bid to raise more awareness about the importance of attending appointments, Public Health England has launched a national campaign using TV and digital adverts to try and reverse the smear-skipping stats.

And many celebrities are jumping on board.

Earlier this year Michelle Keegan vlogged about going for her smear test to prove to her followers that it’s really not anything to be scared of.

The ‘Our Girl’ star admitted she put off having smear tests as she urged women to be screened for cervical cancer.

Posting a string of videos on Instagram in which she talked about having her test done she wrote: “It’s time to talk cervical screening examinations… AKA the dreaded SMEAR (horrible word) test!

“So, smear’s been done. I was in the room five minutes, on the bed for two.

“It was really quick, really easy. It wasn’t painful at all, just a little bit uncomfortable,” she continued.

“I know it can be daunting going for a smear, but these doctors and nurses do it every single day.

“So ladies, I’m urging you to book in your smear. Go and get it done and tell all your family and friends as well to do the same, because it is so important and it’s so easy.”

Proving the message may have got through, some of Michelle’s fans responded to say they’d decided to take action. “Going to book mine today,” wrote one user, while another added: “Thank you for reminding us all!”

View this post on Instagram

It’s Time to talk Cervical Screening examinations… AKA the dreaded SMEAR (horrible word) test! I’m going to be honest with you all, I’ve had numerous letters come through my front door that I’ve pushed aside. I’ve also ignored my mums tiresome pleas telling me to book an appointment with my local GP …because 1) I used the excuse of being ‘too busy’ with work and life in general 2) let’s face its it’s bloody embarrassing to drop your knickers and open your legs in front of a total stranger 3) I was apprehensive thinking about the pain I was going to endure! However I finally got my finger out, (pardon the pun) and went to my appointment. My doctor was so lovely, I hopped onto the bed and it was over in less than 2 MINUTES!!! It was a tad uncomfortable but no means painful. After doing some research I found that the number of women who should go for a test has dropped to an all time low in 20 years!!! Cervical Cancer is the most common cancer in women under the age of 35, with some having no symptoms whatsoever. 75% of cervical cancers can be prevented by having regular cervical screening, let me break this down for you…SMEAR TESTS SAVES LIVES. My advice to you… STOP making excuses, book, and go for your bloody smear! A smear tests last 5 minutes the impact of cervical cancer lasts a life time! #dontfearthesmear #smeartest #smear #womenshealth #cervicalcancerawareness #selfcare #selflove #getyourselfchecked #justdoit 💞

A post shared by michkeegan (@michkeegan) on Nov 11, 2018 at 2:49am PST

Rebranding the smear

Part of PHE’s new campaign involves trying to rebrand how women think about smear testing. This means medical professionals will now refer to the test as a “cervical screening” rather than the traditional “smear test”.

It is about “breaking down barriers,” the PHE’s director of screening Anne Mackie told the BBC. She believes the new term will “normalise” the procedure.

“The campaign shows how cervical screening is a vital preventative test which can identify potentially harmful cells and treat them before they have a chance to develop into cancer, giving us the opportunity to stop cancer before it starts,” she adds.

Kate Sanger, a representative for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, told Yahoo UK the “smear test” is no longer an accurate reflection of the way smear tests are conducted,

“The term ‘smear test’ comes from the old process of processing samples, which involved literally smearing cells onto a glass plate to be looked at under a microscope. This is no longer the way that samples are processed. This means that ‘cervical screening’ is a better description of what happens in the test.”

READ MORE: Theresa May discusses smear test experience

So while the screening impetus witnessed straight after Jade Goody’s death has definitely waned, it seems we’re getting back on track in terms of encouraging women to take their gynaecological health seriously.

And with two people a day already dying from cervical cancer in England, and 2,900 diagnosed each year, it’s proof we have to keep going to make sure her cervical screening legacy doesn’t fade completely.

You can contact Jo’s Trust on their free, confidential helpline on 0808 802 8000, or visit the Jo’s Trust website for more details on what to expect from your cervical screening.