Fearless Friday and My Body Story Meet Again! (Ch. 6)

About a year ago I got a call from my doctor saying that my PAP had come back abnormal, and I had HPV. She said this nonchalantly and informed me that I’d need to make an appointment for a colcoscopy.

The whole conversation took less than five minutes and left me totally wrecked. How could I a (insert many a stupid, entitled blah blah blah adjectives here) young woman have HPV?!

Firstly, I argued with the doctor in my head, I got the vaccination as soon as I was informed of it in high school. Yes. I got all three. No I didn’t miss any. I completed the series.

Secondly, I used condoms with all my partners. At least at the start. And the one with whom I had stopped using condoms had assured me that he had been tested and was clean before we ever went skin-to-skin.

Thirdly, I GOT THE GOD DAMN PAINFUL, THREE-PART VACCINATION WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER.

To say the least, I went from horrified, to pissed off, to completely broken up about the whole thing. Mainly, I was ashamed. There was nothing dirtier in my mind than an STD, and now I somehow found myself with one.

I took my doctor’s nonchalant attitude as judgment. She was terse because she found me as disgusting as I found myself in that moment (I assumed). And then I wondered how I was gonna tell the guy I had started seeing less than a month earlier with whom I’d already had sex (please leave any and all judgment at the door, people).

When I hung up the phone my mom went through her own version of what I described above (I was still between jobs and living at home at this point, so my mom had heard my side of the entire conversation), while also trying to comfort me. I’m sure it would have been comical if I wasn’t so crushed.

I scheduled my colcoscopy, hoping they didn’t mishear me and schedule me for a colonoscopy, and felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Just a little over a year before I had found a lump in my breast and was scheduled for a biopsy that was (thankfully) stopped at pretty much the last second. Turned out what the tech saw on the ultrasound was a shadow and not actually a concerning, potentially cancerous mass. How was I going through another possible cancer scare again so soon?! (Turns out, abnormal PAP does not mean cancer! What????).

After that I dutifully told both the ex with whom I hadn’t used a condom and my new beau with whom I had. The ex got a text. I was mad at him. I assumed he was the source and I tried to hurt him. He was profusely apologetic and swore he would get checked (PS men can’t get tested for HPV, #notsofunfunfact). I just asked him to be more careful about not using condoms (I only found out later that this is one STD condoms cannot prevent) and called it a day.

My new beau got a phone call. I told him what was told to me: that while we had been safe odds are since I had it he has it. He was at work and asked if we could discuss further over dinner. The rest of the day I was sure that he was going to dump me that night, that he was just a classy guy and thought it more fitting to do so face-to-face, not over the phone.

I continued telling people. First my family. Ever since the breast cancer scare we had an agreement that we were open about all medical things, no matter how embarrassing or insignificant. Then my best friends from high school. I’m not sure what made me comfortable enough to tell them. I mean we’ve been friends for over a decade. But I think it was more related to the fact that they had both, at some point or other, been interested in a medical profession. Also because we would have gotten our vaccines around the same time (I assume, our mothers being similar ish on this front, that they got vaccinated as well).

My friends along with the internet tried to assure me that HPV was not a big deal. That a huge percent of the population would have HPV at some point in their lives. And that for most of those people HPV would clear up on its own and not lead to cancer. One of my friends even said that since she was on the three year track with her PAPs she might have had HPV in that time and not ever know about it.

I was not comforted. My colcoscopy came back with mild dysphasia, and I still wasn’t particularly comforted. I was happy that I wouldn’t have to go through any sort of removal procedures that I read about online. But still, not comforted.

My boyfriend didn’t leave me. He assured me we would work through it together. I had a year to wait until my next PAP. For the most part, I’ll admit, this wasn’t on my mind. Somehow, I was finally able to see it for what it was, an infection that my body would most likely clear. But each time a seemingly new wart popped up on my partner’s hand (I say seemingly, because I don’t think they changed at all, I think we are just slight hypochondriacs), we freaked out a little, not knowing at the time that the high risk strain that had been detected in me would not cause warts.

Well, as of last week, a year had passed and I found myself in the stirrups again. This time my new doctor ran both a PAP and an HPV test, the latter because I had had an abnormal PAP in the past. That was last Thursday. On Monday my HPV test came back positive. I cried. I turned to the internet again and found enough articles that said on average the infection would clear in 1-2 years. I told my mom and partner, armed with this new information. On Tuesday my PAP came back normal. I cheered. I sent my partner the dancing woman emoji in celebration.

Yesterday I scheduled my second colcoscopy. Since I previously had an abnormal PAP and now a positive HPV test, this was the course of action that my new doctor recommended.

I am no longer upset at or disgusted with myself. I am, however, angry at the lack of information that I had about HPV. I’m not sure what the state of sex education is in the United States today, but my experience was clearly lacking. For being the most common STD there is, I can’t say I knew much about HPV nor was I prepared for the very high likelihood that I would get it.

I’m also angry at Merck and my pediatrician (again). He are the facts I wasn’t told when I received the original Gardasil. Gardasil only protects again four of the over 100 strains of HPV out there (that’s <4%). Two of the four are associated with about 75% of cervical cancer. The other two are associated with 90% of genital warts. Odds are I would still get HPV, even a high risk strain of HPV, but odds are now much lower that I would get cervical cancer. By the way, Gardasil 9, which was approved almost two years ago, covers an additional 5 strains associated with another 20% of cervical cancers. (source)

Finally, I am beyond outraged at Merck’s/Gardasil’s latest advertising campaign. I’m talking about the commercial with the little girl and the little boy who pleadingly ask their parents if they would have given them Gardasil if they’d known it would prevent their cancer in the future. It’s a disgusting and guilt-filled attempt to get people to buy their product. And it’s upsetting to me, because once again the focus is on the big scary C word and not on informing people of the statistics that are much more likely to impact them.

The truth is, the only way to prevent HPV is to only have sex with one partner who has also only had sex with you (or abstain all together!). That was never in the books for me. And that’s how I find comfort. There was almost nothing I could do to prevent this. The first guy I ever had sex with was not a virgin. I was doomed from day one.

If you, like me, don’t fall into this category of people, odds are you will some day have HPV too. According to the piece I found most comfort in after coming back HPV positive earlier this week, 80% of sexually active adults will have HPV by the time they are 50 (source << read this!). Even the CDC concedes that “HPV is so common that most sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.” I’ve also heard it referred to as the common cold of vaginas. So if you find yourself with an abnormal PAP test, I hope this brings you some comfort. You are far from alone. And depending on your vaccination history odds are pretty low that your infection will turn into warts or cancer.

**This is not an opinion on whether you should or shouldn’t get the HPV vaccine. I have not studied the vaccine, the statistics around it, or its potential side effects.

Body Wisdom

Lately, it seems the universe is trying to tell me something.

Ok. I don’t know if it’s the universe or what, but I seem to be getting the same message over and over again from completely separate sources.

At my meeting with my counselor last week, we kind of came to a head. Twenty minutes into the session she said that it seemed like I felt doomed. I did. I really really did. You see, my personality type tends towards the anxious side. I am known as the loyalist, but also as the loyal skeptic, the doubter. I am always questioning things. Always digging. Always figuring out how something is going to turn wrong in the end. These aren’t my only qualities, but they are the powerful ones.

You can see where in some situations this can be helpful. If your company is high risk, they want people to dig and find the weak spots.

But I’m sure you can see where, personally, this can be very harmful.

It takes a lot for me to trust people. Once I trust you, it’ll take more than one incident to lose that trust. But once it’s lost, it’ll be even harder to regain.

To put it lightly, I felt screwed. I was at a low point and I felt like I would never be able to truly trust anyone or anything ever again. It was melodramatic to say the least, but unfortunately at the time that knowledge didn’t make the feelings any less real or less painful.

So then we changed gears.

We talked about anxiety. We talked about fear. And about F.E.A.R. And about negative subjectivity, both useful and not. And finally about positive subjectivity. And what it all came down to was this:

As an anxious person when I analyze a situation I tend to think about all the things that can go wrong and I get scared. Unlike fear, this is F.E.A.R (false evidence appearing real). This tendency is a futile negative subjectivity. It’s something that scares me but that fear/sadness/negative response doesn’t actually protect me from anything or teach me something I need to know (that would be useful negative subjectivity, like feeling pain when I touch something hot or running when a bear decides to chase me). Some people that struggle with really bad anxiety can actually get to a point where they can’t do anything. It can get paralyzing.

So she urged me to instead focus on positive subjectivity. Instead of NOT doing things out of F.E.A.R. or doing the least F.E.A.R.ful things, I needed to start making decisions on what gave me a positive response. And that positive response will more likely than not be a completely inexplicable gut feeling. I have to learn to bypass my anxious brain and trust my gut again.

As she said this I kind of laughed to myself.

This was not the first in recent months that I was told to bypass my brain. And I guess it took this third time to really make things click.

The first time, of course, came with my end to dieting. One of the tenets of intuitive eating, health at every size, body positivity, anti-diet movement that I follow is that the body knows what it needs better than the brain. What diets do is they take the responsibility for nourishment away from the body and to the brain. But animals (including humans) have been feeding themselves for eons with no issue. Without calculating calories and macros and activity levels. The problem with some for some dieters is that the more they rely on their brain to tell them what to eat, the less they trust cues from their bodies. Bodies that have been successfully feeding themselves for as long as organisms have had to survive, much longer than our analytical brain came into existence.

The second time was in the drawing class I took this summer. The teacher, this awesome kind of frazzled older guy with wire-rimmed glasses and hair that sticks up just so, was very adamant about bypassing the brain. He said artists usually let their brain get in their own way. Their brain thinks things (features, eyes, noses, elbows, shoulders, trees, animals) should look a certain way. But if you draw what you see instead of what you think something looks like you’ll go further.

His argument is that the eye has had much more time to refine. It has been part of evolution for a while. Whereas the analytic part of the brain, the part that we often say is unique to humans, is young. The eye knows what it sees. And the hand can draw those shapes. It is the brain that gets frustrated by the process and tells you to draw a circle for an eye and ignore all the beautiful complexity.

And finally, here I was, in a room across from a woman with a Masters degree in psychology whom I hired to help me figure out where I want to go in my career. And she was telling me to bypass my anxious brain and trust my gut feelings.

I’m sorry if this sounds a little woo woo. I wish I could explain it to you, outside world, as clearly as it’s been done in my brain. But what it really comes down to is this: our brains are young and they are pretty malleable – they are easily swayed by all sorts of media sometimes knowingly (like reading a study on something) and sometimes not so knowingly (like watching a commercial for something). And yet, a lot of us have been taught that our brains are our greatest (if not only) tools.

All I’m saying, all I’ve heard at least three times over the last few months, is that maybe we should consider that our bodies are another vast source of wisdom.

Thoughts While Hiking

I had a super interesting conversation with my partner yesterday.

We were on a hike with a Meet Up group. As we’re both people of the internet (read: we met online), we had both had experience with Meet Up. None particularly successful. But with many of his friends’ relocating and most of my friends not being from Portland, we decided to attempt this again.

We went on a fun hike with a mostly older (>40) crowd. At some point he was asked what he does and that prompted some interesting conversation. Most people there felt that they had spent most of their lives chugging along and were using their older years to really do what they love. This, I thought, is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I don’t want to spend half my life doing what I think I have to do but hating every minute of it. I have met enough people in my life that pursued what they loved doing and felt themselves much more successful, regardless of income and material goods.

As he continued speaking with one woman on our return trip, I picked up the pace and went off on my own. I wasn’t really adding to their conversation, and I love using time in nature to think.

I realized the greatest difference between me and many people whose lives (especially their work-lives) I admire is that I made my decisions based on what career paths and monetary income I could expect, they did not. This most blatantly happened in college. A year and a half into my education, I realized engineering was not what I thought it would be. It was a lot more theoretical than, not as hands on as, I had expected. The only other thing that was really interesting me at the time was linguistics. When faced with the decision to drop my engineering degree and pursue linguistics instead my reaction was “well what could I possibly do with a linguistics degree.” So I stuck it out with engineering and here I am today.

The people I admire are people who pursued a degree they felt passionate about without any real idea of what possible job it could bring them. I know one man who studied literature never imagining he would become a web content manager. My partner studied philosophy and film theory, got a masters in critical thinking, and finds himself working in television. I follow a blogger who got a degree in percussion and is currently making her money through a cooking blog/cook book.

These are people who pursued their passions and ended up in places they probably didn’t imagine when they first went to school. I tried to plan years in advance only to find myself hugely dissatisfied with where I am.

So when faced with such decisions, I really encourage you to choose passion. The more passionate you are about something, the harder you’ll work at it, the most success you will probably find. And remember that success doesn’t always mean income or material property. Be more open minded. Pursue that which you love.