When news of Kylie Minogue's breast cancer surgery was splashed on newspaper front pages all over the world four years ago, some breast cancer surgeons expressed concern that such blanket coverage might cause anxiety and even trigger cancer phobia. In the event, the impact was overwhelmingly positive. Within two weeks of Kylie's op, the number of women presenting for screening for the first time had risen by 40 per cent in the UK – and the numbers stayed high as the pop singer returned to glowing health.
Now, however, experts are anxiously assessing the likely impact of Jade Goody's high-profile experience of terminal cervical cancer and the Big Brother star's fund-raising plans to wed and then die in the public eye.
It couldn't be more crucial. With a persistent increase in rates of infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) that leads to cervical cancer, attendance for cervical screening is at an all-time low. Screening for this cancer saves hundreds of lives every year as long as women turn for screening. Yet last year a million women, more than one in five of those invited for screening, didn't bother keeping the appointment – with one in three of these in the 25 to 29 age group.
Certainly, the 27-year-old former dental nurse who has made headlines since her first appearance on Big Brother in 2002, has made cervical cancer public in an unprecedented manner. Coverage has been mixed. Early on, her diagnosis clearly got women's attention, with a 20 per cent increase in attendance at smear clinics reported in the weeks after the announcement. Yet the antagonism that had The Sun running a Big Brother campaign to "Get the Pig Out" in 2002, and which surrounded the racism row surrounding Goody's appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, has continued. Although Goody has plenty of supporters in the public eye and on the net, one website, called When Will Jade Goody Die?, offers an iPhone as a prize for predicting the date of her death, and a Facebook group appeared briefly, titled, Yay! Jade Goody has Cervical Cancer.
"I do hope her plight will encourage other women, but I fear it may not," says Dee Standley, director of the life-coaching group AspireNLP and herself a survivor of cervical cancer. "I would love there to be a positive spin on Goody's story, whatever happens to her. But I worry that it could have the effect of driving more women into denial about cancer."
At 37, Standley is 10 years older than Goody, but has had "frighteningly" similar experiences of cancer. Like Goody, who was admitted to hospital four times with unexplained pain and sent home with painkillers, Standley suffered unexplained illness in the run-up to her diagnosis. She on a US business trip in 2004 when she collapsed and was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. "I had everything going for me; the six-figure salary, the sports car and all the trappings. I was slim and athletic, I'd swim before work and then go to the gym in the evening. I was also travelling most weeks. And for all the glamour, my immune system was suddenly unable to cope."
For both women, the diagnosis, coming out of the blue, was a profound shock. Back in Britain, and as a senior IT sales consultant, Standley was on her way to a high-flying meeting with clients when she took the call from her specialist telling her to make an urgent appointment. "He told me they'd found the first stages of cervical cancer. I understood exactly how Goody must have felt when she was told about the diagnosis in the diary room of the Indian version of Big Brother. My world changed completely in a few seconds." The response to diagnosis was different. While Goody's focus seems to have been as much on selling her story to the media as on getting treatment, Standley gave her all to getting well. "From those first few minutes, I treated the cancer like a work project," she recalls. After meeting the clients "as though nothing had happened", she spoke to her most supportive friend over a coffee and bought the most inspirational book she could find abut recovering from cancer (Lance Armstrong's It's Not About The Bike, My Journey Back to Life) – which she read at home that evening.
Even so, there were several times during the treatment that Standley's prognosis seemed as bleak as Goody's has proved. After the first of three colposcopies – internal investigations that assess and treat the abnormal cells – Standley was told the cancer cells had penetrated the wall of her cervix into the neck of the womb. "It meant that I had to have very severe surgery, removing almost the whole of the neck of the cervix."
What really upsets Standley is that she knew so little about the disease. 'The lack of information about cervical cancer is terrifying. I'm sure it must have been the same for Jade. At school biology, we did photosynthesis and dissecting a rat but nothing about this frightening disease. As an adult, I was usually quite good about going for my smear but I wasn't obsessive about it – as I am now. I never once thought about what the smear was for and I don't think I'm unusual in not understanding what smears are all about."
It's this ignorance, Standley believes, that is behind the poor uptake of cervical screening. "It's the only explanation that makes sense. Otherwise, why would someone fail to do something that is so simple, costs nothing and could keep them alive?" Such a view is echoed by the campaigning charity Jo's Trust – set up by London businessman James Maxwell after his wife, Jo, died of cervical cancer aged 40, having failed to get "good information about every aspect of the disease, including its causes, treatment options and prognosis". Its new director, Robert Music, says information is more widely available today. "But it's not always accessible to women most at risk of cervical cancer – those of Goody's age who come from a deprived background and are poorly educated."
Other people's stories can be the best form of education, according to Dr Ann McPherson, co-founder of the charity DIPEx, which has published more than 10,000 video clips of people talking about 50 serious illness on the website www.healthtalk online.org since it was established in 2001. It is expanding its coverage of cervical cancer to include women like Goody and Standley who have had severely abnormal smears and would like anyone who has been through that diagnosis to get in touch.
"It doesn't matter that the stories are about celebrities or even whether they've got happy endings," says Dr McPherson. "When you are after the truth, you want the whole picture: and that includes the good and the bad news and the views of people from different backgrounds and with different coping strategies. That's what we provide in a manner that's medically endorsed."
Standley, now the proud mother of baby Findlay, born prematurely last June after a difficult pregnancy, is the ultimate example of a happy ending to cervical cancer. After the colposcopies and extensive surgery, Standley was given the all-clear in June 2006 and became pregnant in October 2007. 'After being told that I had virtually no chance of having a baby after the surgery, it was wonderful to find I was pregnant. I had to inject myself in the abdomen to keep my blood thin and I gave up on exercise to make sure I'd keep the baby. It was very difficult – especially as my partner left me before the baby was born. But I stayed positive, ate well and now I'm a blissfully happy mother with a new, healthier outlook on life. I would like to do whatever it takes to urge other women to make a priority of having a smear.'
Robert Music is hopeful that whatever the outcome for Goody, the overall impact will be positive. "Currently, she's a very unwell young woman focusing on her children's future rather than educating other people. We hope that she will work with an organisation such as ours to tell young women to turn up for cervical screening. That could be her lasting legacy," he says.
Dee Standley's 'Eat Yourself Slim' is published on 2 March. Further details from www.aspirenlp.com
Cervical cancer: The facts
What causes cervical cancer?
In 99.7 per cent of cases, it is caused by persistent infection with human papillomavirus. HPV is a common virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area.
How common is it?
More than 2,800 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 1,000 women die from the disease every year in the UK.
What happens in a smear test?
This is not a cancer test. It is to detect cell abnormalities at an early stage. Of those that are abnormal, the vast majority involve non-cancerous changes. Even when large abnormalities are found, there should be enough time to treat pre-cancerous cells before the disease takes hold.Reuse content