Alma may not have died in vain

Alma has been everywhere this week. I have not watched Coronation Street for years, yet I know that Alma - the one who worked in the cafe who always wore too much eyeshadow - has been killed off. She missed a smear test, apparently, and the hospital messed up her next one. And then, oh dear, she was in the final stages of cervical cancer. Poor Alma, deathbed-pale on the front the tabloids. The nation wept.

But the next day Alma was resurrected in the pages of the Sun - the actor Amanda Barrie berating Granada for her character's untimely death. Arms flailing and lips curling, she branded it "a cheap ratings ploy".

Brookside Close and Albert Square must vie for the title of Most Dangerous Place to Live in Britain. Barely a week seems to go by without some ogreish husband being buried under the patio, or an attractive barmaid hurtled pavement-ward by Frank Butcher's car. But not all soap deaths are so dramatic. Not everyone gets gunned down at a wedding or crushed under a tractor. Some of them succumb to common-or- garden illnesses, and die from breast cancer - as 13,000 women do annually - or, like Jim Robinson in Neighbours, from a heart attack, which is the nation's biggest killer. Some of them don't die at all. They simply suffer, teetering on the brink, so that we tune in next week - same time, same place - until they recover.

How realistic are the portrayals of such illnesses? Are they, as Barrie roared, merely ratings-grabbers? Or do they serve a purpose, educating the masses, where the fact sheets and the government health warnings fail?

In the Archers radio soap last year Ruth Archer, a 33-year-old mother of two, was diagnosed as having breast cancer. In order to play her role effectively, the actor Felicity Finch sought advice from Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

"Our experience from working with the Archers is that they treated the subject as sensibly as one can reasonably expect," says Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breakthrough. "One thing we liked was that they highlighted the relationship of Ruth and David, and the effect it can have on a partner. In Alma's case, they didn't get the chance to explore this. It all happened so quickly."

Cancer experts have been a little alarmed by this expeditious end. "In the case of Alma, they have been inaccurate," says Dr Anne Szarewski, senior clinical research fellow at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. "They implied that they were able to diagnose cervical cancer just from a smear test, which isn't how it is. But what can you say when they are getting 15 million viewers? And it has jerked a lot of women into getting smear tests." This much is true. The Christie Hospital in Manchester is now dealing with 1,000 smears every day. Before the Alma storyline the figure was 2,000 a week.

Peggy Butcher's breast-cancer story in EastEnders, and her online diary, also helped to raise awareness of the disease. Catherine Davies was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago, and underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction. Since then, she has worked with the Sheffield Breast Care Support Network.

"Where the TV comes into it," says Davies, "is that, through stories such as Peggy and Alma, it has made people realise it is important to get tested. If they've saved only one life through screening these stories then it's worth it."

Rosemary Burch is a breast-care counsellor at St Thomas's Hospital in London. She runs a support group for women with newly diagnosed cancer. "Just this Tuesday morning, at the support group, the cases of Ruth and Peggy came up - not for the first time. There are very mixed reactions. But not infrequently, and especially in the case of Peggy, people feel angry at the unrealistic trivialising of the disease. I believe they had her up and pulling pints very quickly. This was unanimously felt to be unrealistic."

Generally, Burch finds that the women in her support group are glad to see breast cancer discussed on television and in the media, and happy that issues such as regaining sexuality are aired. "It's an area which is potentially very difficult to talk about."

However, there is one question which crops up at their meetings. Why is it always cancer?

"What the soaps generally tend to do is to portray the worst-case scenario," says Anne Szarewski. "Otherwise it doesn't make very good TV. They choose cancer because they always go for the most emotionally loaded plot. If it's breast cancer, it's always the young mother with children - even though it's extremely rare."

Of course it isn't always cancer. But it is often "extremely rare". In the case of Beth Jordache, Brookside's lesbian pin-up, she suffered a heart attack in police custody, having been arrested for the murder of her abusive father, who was buried under the patio. Beth was a little young to have a heart attack, although such cases do occur (although one could argue that it was also "extremely rare" for a teenage girl to assist her mother in killing her father and then disposing the body).

In EastEnders, we have seen Mark Fowler dealing with being HIV positive since 1991. At the time of his diagnosis, this was an extremely daring story, but his on-screen presence has dispelled many prejudices about HIV and Aids. Similarly, the soap's plot involving young Joe Wicks's schizophrenia won it a mental-health award for its kid-gloves approach. Over the past few years, we have also seen death in childbirth, meningitis, impotence and infertility. Other maladies are certainly on the way.

"Discussion of these issues in the media has got to be a good thing," says Delyth Morgan. "It's so much better than going back to the taboos of the past."

Still, when soap stars start getting stroppy, move on or win parts in West End musicals, getting rid of them can be a contentious issue for producers. Should they be hit by a rogue hostess trolley falling from a passing aeroplane, or ought their death serve some greater, educational purpose?

• Breast Cancer Care, free helpline: 0808 800 6000; www.breastcancercare.org.uk. Terrence Higgins Trust, helpline: 0207 242 1010

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.