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.