'How Jade Goody helped me beat cancer'

As Jade Goody was dying a very public death a year ago, Elizabeth Heathcote received some bad news...

A year ago tomorrow, Jade Goody died of cervical cancer. She received the initial diagnosis while appearing on the Indian version of Big Brother, so the world knew about it from the start. Watching her go through months of treatment and her last days with her young sons was moving. But her tragic early death had one positive result: after a sustained decline in the number of young women attending surgeries for smear tests in the UK, there has since been an increase of more than 20 per cent.

Cervical cancer is one of the more preventable variants, we are told, if you just go for your smear. I do, whenever I am called for the appointment. In February last year, as I watched Jade reeling from the news that her cancer was terminal, I had recently had my latest test. What I didn't know was that a letter was in the post to tell me that, for the first time, the results were abnormal. The date on the letter was Friday the 13th (of February).

It told me that there were "abnormal changes (known as moderate or severe dyskaryosis) in the cells of your cervix". It said I needed treatment to "help prevent cancer developing in the future". There was a leaflet with the letter, and my panicked eyes focused on the highlighted line that said that even with moderate or severe dyskaryosis it is "unlikely that you have cancer". Which of course meant it was possible. I had a hospital appointment booked for me – for Friday the 13th (of March).

I cried on the train to work. I was scared. I thought about my daughter, who was four, and my son, who was eight. I knew it would be a catastrophe for them if I died. And my partner, how would he cope?

A friend came with me to the appointment. The first doctor we saw laughed away my worries. He said that pre-cancerous cell changes are totally different to cancerous cells, and that anyway cancer would be visible on my cervix and he could see nothing. I then went on to a colposcopy, where a consultant obstetrician explained that the cervix lies at the border between two types of tissue, which makes it more vulnerable to cell changes that can be a precursor to cancer. If those changes are mild or moderate, they often right themselves. If severe, they need to be removed. Severe dyskaryosis left untreated would have a one in three chance of developing into cervical cancer within 20 years.

He studied my cervix using a colposcope, a sort of magnifying glass, and removed a polyp. He also took a biopsy for further tests. Was it painful? The leaflet said it should be like a smear, which for most women is uncomfortable. For me, I have to say, it hurt, but that was probably the polyp being tugged off rather than the biopsy.

Jade died on Mothers' Day, 22 March 2009. I received the results of my tests days afterwards. It turned out that the cell changes were severe and I would have to have a further treatment to remove them.

Early on in Jade's illness, various media sources reported that she had received this same call for treatment and ignored it. In fact, she said in an interview, she had the treatment three times, after cell abnormalities recurred, and it was only when she was called back for a fourth time that she was "too scared" to go. She had her first treatment when she was 16. "Even before I was sexually active, I had to have pre-cancerous cells removed," she said. "And that nearly traumatised me for life, it was so painful."

I wasn't scared that I had cancer any more. But I wasn't looking forward to the procedure. A Lletz treatment is conducted under local anaesthetic, and involves cutting away the area of abnormality with a small wire loop and an electric current. There are some "small" risks attached (excessive bleeding, infection, burns) and when my appointment had to be changed from May to July, I was relieved to be able to forget all about it for a while. Except, of course, that I didn't.

Stupidly, I scanned the internet. One minute an NHS or cancer charity website would reassure me that now I was in the system I was safe. The next I had read the words of some pundit declaring that you are more likely to die from an infection after this procedure than from cancer. Why was I listening to some conspiracy theorist from Texas?

The procedure only took a few minutes and, with the anaesthetic, was less painful than the biopsy. But it felt like a grim exercise in endurance. Afterwards I just wanted to burrow away, so off we went to a seaside caravan. No swimming for me, of course – no sex, baths or strenuous exercise until the bleeding had stopped, which would take about a month. I didn't feel like doing anything in any case. I wasn't in pain – it was an ache, rather, and a subliminal acknowledgment that I had a wound inside, a bit of my flesh cut away. I felt subdued, under par.

Soon after this, my daughter developed alarming flu symptoms. This was mid-July, the height of the swine-flu scare, so for a week we were isolated at home. Then my temperature shot up too. I was sneezing but the wound was also showing signs of infection. The consultant had warned me about the sort of discharge to look out for.

Apparently, 3 per cent of patients develop an infection. It was my biggest fear. I imagined a superbug eating me up from the inside. I rang my GP, who was barricaded in her surgery against swine-flu desperados. She wouldn't allow me to come in, but sent anti-biotics. They cleared the infection up within days. It took a month, but by mid-August the bleeding had stopped, the dull pain had gone away and I felt well again. Soon afterwards I got a letter from the hospital saying the procedure had been successful. It had all happened exactly as they said it would.

In January of this year I returned for a smear test, which came back clear, and I was discharged. For the next 10 years I will have six-month and then annual tests at my GP. Hopefully they will continue to come back clear. If not, like Jade I may have to go through it all again, and maybe again after that. But there is no way that I would stop turning up. And that is thanks to her. n

Cervical cancer: The facts and figures

2,900 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. It is the second-most common cancer in women under 35.

4.4 million women are called for screening annually; 24,000 results show severe abnormalities. About one in 20 smear results shows borderline cell changes, and one in 100 shows moderate cell changes.

The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is sexually transmitted. There are many variants of HPV, and four out of five adults has been infected at some point. Factors that increase risk include smoking, taking the Pill, and having mothered several children.

The HPV vaccine, which protects against HPV 16 and 18, the most dangerous variants in terms of cervical cancer, is now offered routinely to all girls aged 12 to 13.

The NHS in England offers regular smear tests to all women aged 25 to 65. The argument for not screening under-25s is that cervical cancer is rare in this age group. The NHS in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland screen women from the age of 20.

Source: Cancer Research UK

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

    £60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

    Year 5/6 Teacher - Winsford

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 5/6 Teachers needed in WinsfordWe...


    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: SENCO Greater Manchester

    Art & Design Teacher

    £85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits