Schooling Myself on HPV
Originally Published: January 30, 2009
Revised: October 24, 2013
As I walked into the exam room for my first gynecological exam, I had no reason to think that anything would be “wrong” with me. I was there because I had been sexually active and I wanted birth control pills. The exam was routine and the Pap test was nowhere near as bad as I had feared—a bit awkward, perhaps, but not painful or even uncomfortable. I left the doctor’s office with no health concerns of any kind—or so I thought.
Several days later, my blood work came back fine, but the doctor said that my Pap test had come back “abnormal.” I had human papillomavirus (HPV) and needed to be scheduled for a colposcopy. A colposcopy? My doctor told me that a colposcopy was a “fancy Pap smear,” which didn’t tell me much. The terms “HPV,” “colposcopy” and “cancer screening” were flying through my head. I knew little to nothing about what all this really meant. I was too overwhelmed to ask for details. And to make things worse, my doctor didn’t explain. I was ready to panic, but decided instead to do some research.
I learned that human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can infect men’s and women’s genitals, including the skin of the vulva (the genitals outside the vagina), penis or anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix or rectum. Most people who get HPV don’t even know that they’re infected. HPV usually clears up on its own, but it’s important to get a Pap test just to make sure.
HPV is very common: at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. It’s easy to catch because it’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, so even if you’re using latex barriers, like condoms or dental dams, you can get infected through the areas not covered by latex.
The only foolproof method of protecting yourself from HPV is abstinence. However, there are ways to help reduce your risk, like being in a monogamous relationship with someone who has been with few, if any, other partners before you.
There is also an HPV vaccine for girls and women age 9 to 26, which I didn’t get. Even if I had, it’s still possible to get HPV, because the vaccine only protects against four (out of 40) types of HPV: two low-risk types, which cause genital warts, and two high-risk types, which can lead to cervical cancer. There is no HPV test for guys, which means that a male can have HPV and pass it on to his partner without knowing it. Be proactive about getting Pap tests and cervical cancer screenings to find out if you have an HPV infection and to be sure it clears up without causing damage to the cervix.
After learning more about HPV, I felt a bit better. But then I began to do research about the procedure I had been scheduled for: a colposcopy. During a colposcopy, the doctor inserts a speculum into the vagina, just as they do during a pelvic exam, but then vinegar is applied to the cervix. The vinegar causes any areas where the cells have changed (called “dysplasia”) to appear white through the colposcope (basically a microscope the doctor uses to see the cervix better). After checking for dysplasia, the doctor takes small tissue samples from the cervix; this is called a biopsy. Several articles I read described the biopsy pain as being either a slight pinch or a sensation very similar to a menstrual cramp.
After getting more information about colposcopies, I was less nervous about the procedure itself. On the other hand, I kept seeing the words “cervical cancer” in every article I read. It occurred to me that I could now be at a higher risk for cancer and that I could possibly already have precancerous cells on my cervix. Even the vague possibility of cancer was enough to terrify me.
Finally, the day of my appointment arrived. The procedure was quicker than I expected and, fortunately for me, came with good news. The doctor saw no areas of dysplasia, which meant no changing cells that could lead to cancer. She took a few biopsy samples anyway, just to be on the safe side. Then it was over. The doctor was confident that, beyond the HPV itself, nothing was wrong with me.
They scheduled me for a follow-up Pap in a few months, which will hopefully come back normal. I know now just how important it is for girls and women to have annual Pap tests if they are sexually active. Plus, knowing for sure what is going on with your body and being able to identify something, like HPV, in its early stages, before it develops into something serious, is more than worth the time and temporary discomfort of the doctor’s office.
Lauren McLeod is a Sex, Etc. contributor who lives in Georgia.
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