Coronation Street has recently aired a cervical cancer storyline, in a bid to raise awareness of this particular cancer, which could reach up to 9.4 million viewers across the UK. Sinead Tinker, played by actress Katie McGlynn, is a 24-year old mum-to-be and has been diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer following a biopsy to investigate on-going bleeding during her pregnancy. The show deals with Sinead’s heart-breaking decision of whether to terminate her pregnancy in order to start aggressive treatment or continue with her pregnancy and opt for a milder treatment in the second trimester, which could greatly increase the risk of the cancer becoming incurable. The show also explores Sinead’s dilemma of whether to tell her husband Daniel about the diagnosis, as she worries that he will forever be burdened by contributing to the decision.
Tragically, this storyline is not dissimilar to the true events faced by Pete Wallroth and his late wife Mair, who was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant and died two months after their baby Merlin was born. To inform her acting, Katie McGlynn has been working with the charity Mummy’s Star (http://www.mummysstar.org/), which was set up by Pete to help women and their families dealing with cancer during pregnancy. Of meeting Pete, Katie reported: "It was just heart-breaking when I was talking to him, I couldn't get over it. As an actress you are playing a part and you want it to be as real as possible, but when you actually meet the person that's had to go through it, it is just a different level” (The Mirror).
So what is the impact of such a storyline on cervical screening uptake? Does it make a difference?
Yes! A good example comes from a 2002 study, which investigated the effects of a previous Coronation Street storyline in which much-loved character Alma Halliwell, 55, died of cervical cancer after missing several smear tests (Howe, Owen-Smith & Richardson, 2002). The study analysed the NHS cervical screening databases covering Lancashire and Greater Manchester. The number of cervical smears performed, in women over 25, whose previous smear was normal and who were on routine recall, during a 6 month period that included the story line, was compared with those in the same period in the previous year. The number of smears increased from 65,714 in 2000 to 79,712 in 2001 – a significant increase of 13,998 tests (21%) in the 19 weeks after the story line. This demonstrated the large impact that a soap opera storyline can have on the cervical screening programme. Hopefully, the storyline of Sinead Tinker will do the same.
On the other hand, there can sometimes be negative consequences of raising awareness through television shows. For example, the latest storyline of Sinead has caused controversy over the fact that 24-year old Sinead was not eligible for the national cervical screening programme, which includes women aged 25-64 years. Katie commented, "I don't agree with how women have got to wait 'til 25 to have a smear test personally. I think it's absolutely ridiculous. It does happen to young people and it's a very serious illness” (The Mirror).
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the fact that the reason cervical screening is not offered to under 25's is two-fold. Firstly, cervical cancer is very rare in under-25's - in the UK, about 2 out of every 100 diagnosed are under 25. In countries where cervical screening starts at 20 years old, the number of people under 25 diagnosed with cervical cancer is not significantly different than in countries that start screening at 25. This means that cervical screening has not been shown to reduce the number of cases of cervical cancer in under 25’s. Additionally, cervical cancer is to become even rarer in under 25’s over the next 10 years thanks to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
Secondly, the risks of offering cervical screening to under 25's outweigh the benefits. When you are under 25, it is common to have changes in the cells of your cervix (abnormalities) and these usually go away by themselves. This means that many under 25’s would receive smear test results indicating cell changes. Knowing about these cell changes could lead to unnecessary stress and treatment, when the changes may simply have gone away on their own. Of course, if under 25’s experience any potential symptoms of cervical cancer, such as bleeding between periods or pain during sex, they can visit their GP who will then refer them for appropriate investigation with a gynaecologist.
When writing a storyline that might impact public health, I believe that television shows and their actors/actresses have a responsibility to be adequately informed prior to engaging with the media. Nevertheless, this storyline will hopefully raise the important issue of cervical screening for many women around the country.
While this storyline plays out over the next months, I will leave you with this question: what are you going to do to make sure the women in your life attend their cervical screening appointments?
[All views and opinions are my own and not those of University College London or the British Psychological Society].
Cancer Research UK (CRUK). (2015). Cervical cancer statistics. UK: CRUK. Retrieved from https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/cervical-cancer
Howe, A., Owen‐Smith, V., & Richardson, J. (2002). The impact of a television soap opera on the NHS Cervical Screening Programme in the North West of England. Journal of Public Health, 24(4), 299-304.