Why Aren’t We Talking More About HPV When So Many Of Us Have It?

Finding out you have HPV after a routine pap smear can be a scary and upsetting experience. When I received my diagnosis, I was absolutely distraught and I realized because of the stigma surrounding the disease. Given that it’s the most commonly transmitted STD, why aren’t we talking about it more?

  1. My very first pap smear had abnormal cells, which was terrifying. I was 18 and had no clue what it meant. I called the doctor over and over, trying to understand what the diagnosis meant for me. He told me to give it a year, which I now understand to mean something (most women can fight off the virus on their own with time). Unfortunately, my boyfriend at the time heard about it and accused me of being the slut that gave him genital warts.
  2. Eight years later, I got another positive result. This past year, my pap smear came back positive again, and this time I started the constant check-up cycle. The next step was a colposcopy (a procedure where the doctor inserts a microscope that looks at your cervix). For me, this procedure included a squirt of vinegar, which makes the abnormalities easier to see.
  3. The next step was a biopsy to help doctors get a closer look at things. During the procedure, the doc took two samples of areas that looked abnormal. They didn’t hurt that bad in the grand scheme of things—no worse than have that cold speculum (even the name is disgusting) propping things open. The biopsies were sent off to the lab for testing. Mine came back normal and the doc told me to give my body six months to fight whatever was happening, before returning for a follow-up pap smear.
  4. My third abnormal pap smear got me a diagnosis. Six months after my biopsy, I had another pap smear which came back positive for the third time. Luckily, science is such that they’re able to test for the strains that cause cervical cancer or genital warts since, if a woman tests positive for these strains, it’s called “high risk.” I don’t have either of those strains, although I do have to return for another colposcopy and a round of cryotherapy (freezing off the abnormal cells).
  5. Cryotherapy can help prevent tumors. HPV is a virus, meaning you have it inside of you and your body has to fight it off. This isn’t an infection that you can take a round of antibiotics for and suddenly go back to normal. This is something that takes some time. The reason for treating the abnormal cells is to prevent an excessive growth AKA a tumor. Although it isn’t cancerous, you still don’t want a tumor on your cervix.
  6. From there, it’s all about crossing your fingers for normal cells to grow back. The alternative to freezing off the cells is scraping them off. Either way, this leaves a blank slate for your normal cells to grow back. From what I’ve read, the procedure doesn’t hurt all that bad and has a high success rate.
  7. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I did something wrong. Through this whole process, I couldn’t help but feel tainted. There’s no other word for it; I feel as though I’ve failed myself and my partner in some way for transmitting this behemoth. Good thing I upgraded boyfriends because he eases my anxiety about this whole mess and reminds me that HPV is crazy common.
  8. Unless you’re joining the nunnery, there’s a good chance you’ll contract it. Pap smears test for abnormal cell growth on the part of your cervix that meets the vagina (Google and look at diagrams—it helps), a positive result being a sign that a woman has the virus. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically get genital warts and cancer, but it’s still cause for further conversation with your doctor.
  9. Not all HPV causes cancer. There are so many strains of HPV and only a few of them have been known to cause cervical cancer, so stop being a WebMD sleuth and thinking you’re going to die. The only truthful site that doesn’t dramatize a “positive” test result is Planned Parenthood, which explains that abnormal cells are very common and don’t automatically equal death via cervical cancer.
  10. The blame game doesn’t work. HPV is so unbelievably common that it’s hard to point fingers at which partner brought it into the relationship. It also can be dormant inside women for years or carried by men with no symptoms. There’s no way to know who brought what to the bedroom, but rest assured that it’s not the end of the world if do contract it.
  11. Understand that you’re not alone. I only recently opened up about my struggles with HPV to my friends and family. Most people have experienced an abnormal pap and sometimes they’ve gone through something more intense (like cryotherapy). Just remember that around 80% of the sexually active population has HPV. Hopefully, I’ll fight this off and be fine for the rest of my life.
Annie is 26 years old and lives on a small hobby farm in southern Minnesota. Her hobbies include writing, reading, traveling, gardening, and playing with her dog- Luna.