This morning I did something I had been putting off for a while, and I did it purely because the coverage of Jade Goody's cervical cancer in the newspapers prompted me to. I rang my doctor's surgery and asked them to tell me when my next smear test is due. Not yet, it turned out – smear tests should be carried out every three years and my last one was in September 2007.
I think about smear tests more than most people, because in my early twenties (the age for testing has subsequently been raised to 25) I had a series of abnormal test results leading to a procedure called a Large Loop Excision of the Transformation Zone (LLETZ), which is where the abnormal cells are cut out. Since then, my smear tests, which were annual for several years following treatment, have been normal, and I am back on a cycle of a test every three years.
But during my many years of smear tests, and after, there have been many times when I wondered whether all of those invasive procedures were worth it, particularly because the probability of abnormal cells developing into cancer are rather slim. Now however, I look at Jade Goody in the news, having ignored a letter from her doctors to come in for further treatment for abnormal cells and now dying from cervical cancer, and I no longer question the value of screening.
But I do understand how easy it is to ignore such letters. After all, having a smear test is a nuisance. You need to get to the doctors at the right time in your menstrual cycle, have a rather large piece of equipment inserted into you and have cells scraped away in an uncomfortable procedure. Having further treatment is even more of a pain – leading to painful cramping, odd discharges, and a month without sex. And it is so easy to ignore letters and warnings and to think that low probability means no probability.
Jade's very public suffering has made many people feel uneasy over the past few months, and there is a sense from many that she should die with dignity, or at the very least, then silently. And nearly all of this is snobbery. No one told the journalists Ruth Picardie or John Diamond to die quietly when they wrote columns and books about the cancers that killed them.
By refusing to back quietly into the shadows, Jade Goody has done a noble thing. I called my doctor because of her, and I suspect many other women have done the same. I did so not because I read a cerebral column she had written on the subject, or because I watched a dignified interview, but because Jade has been as brash and as loud about her cancer as she has about the rest of her celebrity life – something which I, and all the other women who have phoned their doctors about smear tests in the past few weeks, have to thank her for.