It has taken me almost a year of blogging to feel comfortable enough sharing something that is both extremely personal yet important for everyone to read. I’ve debated writing about this because of the judgement I could receive from people I know in real life. Then I came to the conclusion that if they chose to judge me… it would be their loss. My story can save your sister, your daughter, your granddaughter, your niece or even your girlfriend(s).
Cancer is an ugly ugly thing. It seems to have been stirred up in the media with Angelina Jolie’s recent decision to undergo a double mastectomy when she learned she is a carrier of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes. Just recently, Michael Douglas came out and revealed how he developed throat cancer. However, the media often forgets the second most common cancer to afflict women (cervical cancer), and its culprit, the human papillomavirus (HPV). It is also a leading cause for throat cancer in men and women.
It was spring of 2011. I had phenomenal health insurance through my teaching job and wanted to take advantage of it. The year before I did not have my yearly gynecological exam (oops). Feeling guilty of not “doing what I was supposed to do,” I made the appointment. I had to go to a new doctor and a new clinic, so I had no rapport with her. The appointment went smoothly, until I noticed the doctor swabbed more than normal. She used two different kits. That’s when I thought something was off. She didn’t give me any indication that anything was wrong.
The nurse called me about a week later stating that I had to call the doctor for the results. Insert slight panic. Why would a nurse call me…only to tell me that I had to call back for results? This did NOT sound good.
I called the doctor. She said I had to make an appointment to talk to a doctor face-to-face about the test results. When she wouldn’t give me the results over the phone I knew something was bad. Really, really bad. I was referred to another gynecologist who then gave me some mind-blowing news. I tested positive for HPV. I lost all sensation in my legs when I heard that.
What exactly is HPV? How did I get it? What does it do? Do I have a sexually-transmitted disease? The doctor explained it the best he could to no avail. I had to go to Google to learn what this was:
Human papillomavirus (HPV) – The most common STI: The body’s immune system clears most HPV naturally within two years (about 90 percent), though some infections persist. While there is no treatment for the virus itself, there are treatments for the serious diseases that HPV can cause, including genital warts, cervical, and other cancers.Most sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives. […] CDC recommends that all teen girls and women through age 26 get vaccinated, as well as all teen boys and men through age 21.Overall in the United States, an estimated 6.2 million new HPV infections occur every year among persons aged 14–44 years (1). Of these, 74% occur among those aged 15–24 years. Modeling estimates suggest that >80% of sexually active women will have acquired genital HPV by age 50 years (56).
Holy smokes. I was utterly terrified.So, what does that tell us? Most of the sexually active people in the United States have HPV. Most people don’t know that they have it because it seldom shows symptoms. I learned that there are different strains of the virus. Some cause genital warts. Some cause high risks for cancer. Mine fell in the latter of the two.
My doctor told me that he needed to get a biopsy for pathology via a procedure called a colposcopy, also known as the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. Take your worst menstrual cramps and multiply them by 10.
In the most humbling moment of my life, and in a true testament to the vow in sickness and in health, I asked my husband to come with me to my next GYN appointment. With a male doctor. I am so thankful that he sat there and held my hand through it.
My doctor read us the diagnosis from my colposcopy: CIN3, or severe dysplasia. My cervix had High-Grade CIN (Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia or abnormal changes in cervical cells), or (in layman’s terms) an infection that was one step away from becoming cervical cancer. CIN3/severe dysplasia is sometimes referred to as carcinoma in situ.
My next step? A LEEP procedure. In a nutshell, it is an outpatient procedure where a portion of the cervix is removed (burnt off by laser). I was scared. Not only because I was SO close to cancer, but also because the procedure made it possible that I could not carry a a pregnancy full-term without bedrest or a cervical suture. Splendid.
To the nurse who talked me out of bearing the procedure with only a local anesthetic: You’re an angel. My advice? Take the IV and get knocked out. Don’t try to be a tough chick by shying away from the pain meds. Definitely take the IV. (I was later told that my procedure took longer than expected because the lesion bled heavily and I needed stitches.)
It’s been almost two years since I had my LEEP in August 2011. Since then, I’ve needed a pap test every six months to ensure that the infection has not returned. If it does, I could need the LEEP procedure again. Last week I had my final biannual pap exam. I pray everything is ok. Then, and only then, would I feel comfortable moving forward with starting a family.
I kind of suffered in silence. Only really close friends knew about my LEEP surgery. This was not something I blasted on social media. Why? Because I was ashamed. Now I know that the general public is suffering from a lack of education on this topic. I was only 27. Had I skipped out on that exam today, I might not be here.
My message to women of all ages: DON’T delay your GYN appt, especially if you have ever been intimate with anyone. HPV can be transmitted even WITH condoms. It is a skin-to-skin transmission, so using a condome won’t protect you. Also, reach out to friends. Share your story. That’s 1 or 2 more people who you’ve educated.
After I shared my story with family and friends, all of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t alone in having scary pap exam results. This need not be a taboo in our culture.
I’d like to have a discussion about this. Reach out to me with questions in the comments section and I will reply in the comments section. If you have more personal questions, feel free to e-mail me, but I encourage conversations in the comments of this post to foster a better understanding.
Thank you for reading. I hope my story helps save at least one life.