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From the time I received the first call notifying me of my abnormal Pap smear results until the day the doctor confirmed I was free of all cancerous cells, I was a complete mess. In the span of three months, I found out I had an incurable STD, learned that it had led to cervical cancer, went to the gynecologist more times than I can count (including lots of poking and prodding―joy!), and had a chunk of my cervix lasered off. And though I am currently cancer-free, I will never truly be free of the fear those cells will return or that more serious treatment will be necessary.
The following is a recount of my experience and the emotions I dealt with in the aftermath of hearing the news.
Phase 1: Panic
Honestly, the very first thought that ran through my mind when my doctor told me I had HPV (human papillomavirus) was, “Oh my God, he cheated on me.” After all, I was married, had been in a monogamous relationship with my now-husband for some time, and was clear of HPV before we met. How else would I have gotten an STD?
Turns out, it’s possible to have HPV for months or years without any signs, symptoms, or even an abnormal Pap. There was no way to determine how long I’d had HPV or how I had gotten it. Both my husband and I had to trust that this was an issue that existed before we were together.
After sorting through the potential relationship drama, I then had to deal with the fact that not only did I have HPV—but I had several of the strains that could lead to cervical cancer. And upon further inspection through a colposcopy and biopsies (the poking and prodding), it was determined that I indeed had cervical cancer. Yes, it was the mildest form, and it could be treated, but still. I had cancer.
Phase 2: Shame
I felt like a pariah. The doctor tried to quell my fear by telling me that I was not alone—as I found out, about 50% of all sexually active individuals are infected with HPV. But still, I felt dirty, damaged, and guilty that not only did I have this disease, but that I brought it upon myself.
Aside from my husband, I had to tell my parents, mainly because I was having surgery. But that meant them putting together the pieces: I had an STD. Ugh. I wanted to die. Luckily, they reserved whatever confusion (my husband and I were both virgins until we were married, right? Ha.) or judgment they may have felt, and they fully supported me.
Phase 3: Acceptance (Mostly)
A few years have passed and I remain clear of any cancerous cells, but I have to remain vigilant about yearly check-ups, because they can return at any time. Over these years, I have opened up to several women about my experience, and, as a result, have found that they or someone they know has gone through a similar ordeal. And when you look at the statistics, odds are pretty high that you know someone who has, too.
Sharing with others has been both comforting and healing. Not necessarily something I want to shout from the rooftops, but I thankfully no longer deal with those initial feelings of self-loathing. After all, it could happen to anyone.
Phase 4: Sharing
Now, I want to make sure that everyone has the facts about HPV. Here are some important basics I learned along the way, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control:
- Most people with HPV don’t develop symptoms or health problems from it. In fact, in 90% of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years.
- If your body doesn’t clear it, there is no treatment for the virus itself. There are, however, treatments for the diseases that HPV can cause, including genital warts and cervical cancer.
- A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person. Most people (especially men) don’t realize they’re infected or that they’re passing the virus on to a sex partner. What’s really scary? There’s currently no test to determine if a man has HPV.
- There are over 40 strains of HPV, and the types that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancers. Worse, it’s possible to get more than one type. And there’s no way to know which people who get HPV will go on to develop cancer or other health problems.
- Cervical cancer usually doesn’t show obvious symptoms until it’s quite advanced. For this reason, it’s so important to get regular Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer. These tests can find early signs of the disease so that you can treat problems right away, before they turn into cancer.
- As with most STDs, the only way to prevent HPV is to practice safe sex. Use a condom, every time, and you’re doing your best to protect yourself.
If you’re diagnosed with HPV, or any other STD for that matter, be sure to gather as much information as possible on the condition. Then—and I can’t stress this enough—seek support if you’re having a difficult time dealing with the emotional side effects, because there are sure to be some.
Finally, remember that you’re not alone. STDs remain a societal taboo that no one wants to talk about, but it’s more than likely that you have friends, family, or co-workers that can relate.