No-one has done more for cervical cancer prevention than Jade Goody.
Requests for screening tests have risen by up to 50% in some areas and 10 days ago the Government announced a review of the age at which screening should start. Cervical cancer, which claims over 750 lives a year in England, has not had as much attention for a generation. It is a pity we cannot bottle the “Goody effect”.
As the victim of a preventable medical catastrophe, she wanted others to avoid the fate that had befallen her. So when doctors began to report a surge in demand for cervical smear tests following publicity around her case, she was delighted.
Some of these young women will be the “worried well”, fretting unnecessarily about a condition that is still rare in those under 50. But at 27, Goody was in the age group — 25 to 35 — that has proved hardest to reach for screening and among whom uptake has declined over the past decade. If that decline can be reversed it will be a fitting memorial to a woman whose openness about her own shortcomings encouraged others to confront their problems rather than ignoring them.
Her appeal was across the board but especially strong among young working class women, from backgrounds like her own, who are least likely to attend for screening. Screening rates range as low as 50 per cent in some deprived areas compared with 90 per cent in more prosperous ones, yet it is in the poorest areas that the Jade effect seems strongest.
Publicity generated by her case also forced ministers to look again at England’s controversial decision to delay the start of screening until 25, while Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all start at 20. The sexual health charity, Marie Stopes International, demanded that England fall into line with her neighbours and lower the age to 20, but medical experts at the national cancer screening service for Engalnd say it may do more harm than good. They say women below 25 have natural changes to the cervix which, if picked up in screening, can lead to harmful interventions and that fewer than 50 cases of cancer a year occur in that age group.
There is international disagreement about the risks and benefits, with some European countries starting screening at 18 and some not until 30. Now English experts will examine the evidence again. In raising public awareness and stimulating new debate, Goody’s legacy will ultimately be to make screening safer and more effective for all women.