On a frosty January lunchtime at Petershill Park in Glasgow’s Springburn, players for Glasgow City FC, Scotland’s most successful women’s football club, are gathered in the stadium’s fitness studio.
But rather than doing training drills or talking tactics, they are instead addressing a camera. “Book your screening,” says club captain Hayley Lauder into the lens. “Together we can end cervical cancer.”
The team is filming clips to be used on social media during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, which runs in the UK this year from 23 to 29 January. Since the summer of 2022, they have been sponsored by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity, in an innovative partnership aimed at increasing uptake rates for smear tests among groups where they are currently low.
“We’re quite different in championing women and girls,” says the club’s chief executive and co-founder, Laura Montgomery. “Obviously as a football club we want to win matches. But we want to use our platform to help make change in the world for women and girls because it’s still not an equal place.”
“The answer to whether we wanted to support this was 100 per cent yes,” she continues. “On a personal level, I didn’t really realise there was such a challenge with getting women to go for their smear tests and when we heard about the ages and demographics, we felt we were in a position to influence that.”
Earlier this week, The Ferret revealed that hundreds of cervical cancer cases have gone undetected in Scotland each year as a result of people not taking up their invitations for cervical screening. Our analysis found that those aged 25 to 29 were most likely to miss their screenings, and that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde had one of the highest rates of ‘missed’ appointments in Scotland.
Data from Public Health Scotland continues to show that those in the most deprived areas are least likely to take up their invitation.
Iona Stoddart, deputy head of information and engagement at Jo’s Trust, says the partnership was made possible when the charity was given funding from the Scottish Government to tackle inequalities in screening.
“One of the key groups is young women and particularly those in deprived areas” says Stoddart. “So it was a great opportunity in terms of where the ground is based and the reach and influence they have as a team.”
Football sponsorship…with a twist
In some ways, the partnership resembles a traditional sponsorship, with pitch side banners and programme pages advertising Jo’s Trust and the importance of screening, and coordinated social media messages shared by both organisations.
While the team’s ground is in Springburn, among the most deprived areas in Glasgow, players also bring with them individual followings from their own hometowns and previous clubs.
With matches attracting crowds of up to 1,000, games screened on BBC Scotland and a significant social media reach across club accounts and players’ individual platforms, it is hoped the message will reach its target audiences in some form or another.
Players and staff from particular demographics have been called on to add their voices, with Polish player Kinga Kozac delivering key messages in Polish, and coaches over 50 hoping to encourage older women to attend their screenings.
The partnership has also included training and information sessions with players, staff and the club’s wider community. This month, a session will be held with the club’s youth teams and their parents and guardians. And just before Christmas, Jo’s Trust delivered an information session to the first team, covering what a smear test entails and the importance of accessing one.
“It was a really informative session,” says New Zealand international, Meikayla Moore, 26. “I actually had my first screening booked the following week and I went into it feeling really informed and at ease after that.”
Their perceptions of cervical screening were challenged in the session, say the players: they learned that men can also carry HPV and that abnormal cells detected in screening do not necessarily signify cancer.
As an employer, the club has also signed up to the Jo’s Trust ‘Time to Test’ programme which commits them to allowing staff paid leave or flexible working arrangements in order to attend screenings.
For Diane Harkins, the club’s child welfare protection officer, the campaign is particularly significant: she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2002 aged 21 after a routine smear test.
As a football player and coach who had played at youth national team level, Harkins says she wasn’t worried when her result came back having detected abnormalities. “I was fit and healthy, and cancer never entered my mind,” she says. “I probably had an attitude of: “this will never happen to me.”
After her diagnosis, Harkins received surgery to remove the cancer and has never needed any further treatment. Now, she hopes that sharing her story will encourage both the club’s players and wider fan base to take up their invitations for screening.
“This is a massive club, followed by many women of all ages who are inspired by the female players. They’re role models on the pitch and if they can be role models off the pitch, that will hopefully encourage young women to go to their smear tests,” says Harkins.
“If even one player can get the message across to one young female, that’s an achievement in my eyes.”
Charting the impact
While it’s still early days for the partnership, Stoddart says success would look like increased uptake among key groups for cervical screening, and more awareness of Jo’s Trust and its services in Scotland.
But the charity’s funding in Scotland only lasts for two years, and Stoddart points out the difficulty of gauging the impact of a single campaign in a short time-frame – those attending a cervical screening are not asked what encouraged them to do so, or where they got their information. Typically, change on the scale required takes longer to embed than one football season.
“But we don’t want to stop, and it makes sense for us to work with women’s sport and to partner up with organisations like this,” says Stoddart. “We’d certainly hope to continue similar work.”
Where impact has already been seen is among players and staff themselves who have been part of training sessions and wider conversations about the partnership.
Fresh from recording their Cervical Cancer Prevention Week clips, the players reflect on the importance of the campaign and how it has increased their own knowledge about cervical screening and encouraged them to book their screenings and to spread the word.
“It’s about removing the stigma and reinforcing that it’s just another health check,” says defender Amy Muir, 22. “People go to the dentist when they need a check-up – we have to encourage it as a norm.”
Among the team are a range of ages and experiences; Moore recently attended her first screening, while captain Hayley Lauder, 32, has more experience of smear testing: “So I can talk to the younger girls about it and say: it’s really daunting the first time, but once you’ve had it you realise it’s so insignificant.”
Muir and Jenna Clark, 22, are not yet old enough to have been invited – but both say they will now be sure to take up the invitation when it comes.
“I think we all went off after the information session and started telling people: ‘you have to get tested, it’s so important’,” says Clark. “When my letter arrives I’ll know that I can and I should book an appointment based on the knowledge I have now. And I can inform others about it too.”
“I can’t have [a smear test] but you can,” she mimes telling a friend or family member. “I’ll drive you to the appointment.”
Cover image thanks to Glasgow City F.C.
This story is part of a year-long solutions journalism project between Greater Govanhill Magazine and The Ferret. Mind the health gap will collaborate with local communities to report on the way inequality leads to health disadvantages and shorter lives.
Before starting this piece we consulted with local agencies in Govanhill, health experts across Scotland and surveyed Ferret and Greater Govanhill readers online. They highlighted the importance of covering health topics that impact on women.
But there is much more to come. Get in touch with your suggestions for what we should look at next – on health and gender, on fuel poverty, on access to GPs …or whatever else you think we need to take on next!
This project is funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator and is a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.