When I was 29, I found out I had HPV. My Pap smear tested abnormal and a follow-up test revealed the cause: the human papilloma virus. I’m hardly the first to get the news; at least 50% of sexually active people will get HPV at some point during their lives. It’s nearly always asymptomatic—especially in men—and often harmless, except when it’s not; a couple strains of HPV are responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer. Turns out, I had one of the bad strains.
I allowed myself a brief freak-out moment—my family has a history of cancer and the thought of cancer-causing viruses in my dainty ladycave made my head swim. There was a brief, edgy call to my most recent ex-boyfriend. I had been with him for over a year and we had not used condoms (we were monogamous). I’d tested negative for the virus before our relationship, positive afterwards. It was likely—although not certain—that I’d picked it up from him. He was befuddled and had no idea what HPV even was, so I sent a couple informative links to his Blackberry and hung up on him.
Fortunately, I was in the hands of a cool, calm, and totally rad feminist doctor, who happens to be a specialist in the ways of HPV. She didn’t downplay the fact that I had one of the cancer-causing strains, but she told me honestly that it was still highly unlikely that I’d wind up with cervical cancer. “It only increases your risk,” she told me, “You’re young and healthy, and the body almost always kicks the virus out before it can cause malignancies.” She said that the vast majority of the patients at her downtown Manhattan practice had been infected with some form of HPV at one time or another (which jibes with the statistics on infection rates among young women). When I asked if I needed to discuss the HPV with any future sexual partners she said, “If you’re using condoms, probably not. Having HPV doesn’t mean you’ll automatically transmit it, and even though condoms don’t protect 100%, they’re the most protection you can get.”
What I did need, though, was a colposcopy; an unpleasant 10 minutes in the stirrups in which the doctor removes a teeny little snippet of the cervix to biopsy it for pre-cancerous cells. First, she opened me up with the duckbill and speculum, then misted my cervix and vagina with plain old diluted kitchen vinegar; abnormal tissue can turn white in the presence of vinegar. Luckily, there were no white spots, but my crotch stung and had the faint aroma of pickles for the rest of the day.
A word to the wise now, ladies. I have never been squeamish about my privates; in fact, I usually look down during the pelvic exam just so I know what’s going on. I did that during my first colposcopy and it was a mistake. The instrument that takes a bit of your cervix looks a lot like one of those hand-held hole punchers you used in school. Only it has a visibly toothy, pointy-looking thing on the end, and it’s made of cold metal and it’s going into your vagina. One look and I flushed hot, then cold, and spots started dancing before my eyes. A kind nurse put some ice on my forehead to keep me from passing out.
The actual snipping, though, is not particularly painful. There’s a little cramp as the instrument touches the cervix—like a polite lady pulling away with a squeak of horror—and then a little more when it gets snipped. They paint something on the cervix to stop the bleeding and you have a discharge that looks a bit like coffee grounds for the rest of the day. All in all, not a big deal, and certainly not as uncomfortable as getting a tooth filled or donating blood. Just don’t look down, is all I’m saying.
I never tested positive for pre-cancerous cells, but I ultimately had two more colposcopies over the next couple years, when the HPV stubbornly refused to go away. I’ve always been a bit of a health nut—a family history of cancer makes me slightly paranoid about exercising and eating well—and it was frustrating that no matter how healthy I was, I kept testing positive (I even took folic acid supplements, which my doctor recommended as an HPV-fighter). Fortunately, after that first woozy experience, my doctor was happy to dope me with some Ativan, so I was cheery and relaxed the next time around. No more passing out at the sight of the instruments. Seriously, on Ativan, she could have pulled a rabbit out of my vadge and I would have been totally cool with it.
To my surprise, when I told my female friends about my experience, it turned out that the majority of the women I knew also had HPV at one time or another. At a chic wedding on the Upper East Side, I bonded with my fellow bridesmaids over the fact that all five of us had tested positive. They had all caught it in college; in fact, the Ivy League school that they went to is apparently notorious in college health circles for its sky-high rate of HPV. I became even more shameless in discussing it because the more I talked about having HPV, the more relieved everyone seemed that it was a common experience. No need for shame or secrecy—we’re all in the same boat. When Gardasil was approved, I urged all my friends who could get the vaccine to get it. It was too late for me, but not for them. I know some people have reservations about Gardasil because it’s a new vaccine, but the science behind it is solid and if I were younger and had never tested positive, I would have been first in line to be vaccinated. HPV is common and generally only a minor concern, but I firmly believe a shot or two would have been a small price to pay to reduce my cancer risk and the unpleasantness of being tested and biopsied over and over.
Then, after three years, the HPV left the building. My tests came back negative. I breathed a big-ass sigh of relief. There’s no guarantee I won’t get it again—the only way of ensuring that is abstinence and, well, that ain’t happening. I bristle at people who attach morality to HPV—there’s a small but vocal minority who believe that vaccination against it will make teenagers more likely to be promiscuous, and there will always be people who act like STIs are your comeuppance for being a big old slut. My experience with HPV proved that into every life—and vagina—a some viruses will likely fall, especially if you have an active sex life, and even if you practice safe sex. There’s no more shame in my having HPV than in my catching a cold, or mono, or any other virus transmitted by human contact. The more we talk about the realities of HPV, the more we can reject the slut-shaming and embrace prevention.