The battle to provide cervical screening that almost failed

Cervical screening campaigner Margaret Brown
Cervical screening campaigner Margaret Brown
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Nowadays we take cervical screening for granted. It’s available on the NHS and is estimated to save up to 4,500 lives a year, according to the charity Cancer Research UK.

But it wasn’t always so, as grandmother Margaret Brown remembers only too well.

The former lecturer – who used to live on Waller Avenue in Luton - was one of a crusading group of women who spent two years trying to persuade the then health authority to introduce a pilot scheme.

Margaret, 86, who now lives in Leighton Buzzard where she’s on the PPG network committee, recalled: “In 1964, deaths from known cases of cervical cancer had reached 2,577. One in eight was under 36, leaving many motherless young children.

“There was a letter in the Luton News from Challney teacher Janice Chater, suggesting that Luton, like other towns in Britain, should have a preventive service for this silent killer, which had recently struck down my cousin Jean at the age of 26.

“So with a group of other volunteers I offered to help.

“We had no money to hire a room but were offered one rent free at Beech Hill School. A committee was formed, chaired by Dr S Fletcher, and we decided to raise public awareness and ask if we could have a cervical screening scheme locally.

“But the replies we received were shocking – they were negative, dismissive and even aggressive.

“The effectiveness of the tests was questioned and apparently there was no room at the hospital or in clinics, there were no trained staff available and no cash.

“So we held meetings and invited eminent consultants to speak.

“We realised money would be needed so turned to the methods we knew best: we held jumble sales, coffee mornings, sales of work and raffles.

“The amount we raised enabled us to have 40,000 leaflets printed about ‘A Life Saving Test’. They included slips to be signed and returned to form a petition.

“Organising their distribution fell to me and our volunteers, who often pressed their older children into service. And we received a respectable number back.

“Janice was sent a letter in the summer of 1966 saying that ‘a pilot scheme for the early detection of cervical cancer had begun in Luton.’ We had finally achieved a reluctant break-through after a great deal of opposition.”

Margaret added: “Sadly through embarrassment, ignorance or poor diagnosis, there are still women who die for lack of this simple, quick and painless procedure.

“The great thing is that it’s there and may even be extended to younger women.”