In December 2018, during my usual gynecologist appointment, I was diagnosed with human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects many people, mostly women. Catholic education didn't prepare me for what HPV was, and my lack of knowledge threw me into a tailspin until I learned how to treat and live with it, and how to battle and de-stigmatize it. Aside from the physical aspects, I was in a near panic. I looked up where to get a [completely unnecessary] hysterectomy and tried to find out if my insurance would cover it. I was afraid, but I knew I needed to educate myself. And when I did, it changed my entire outlook on HPV and what it means to be diagnosed with this STI.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is an infection that affects 14 million Americans each year, but no one seems to know what it is. It is contracted through skin-to-skin contact. HPV is an infection that affects most people who are sexually active, and it is the most common STI. The stigma surrounding HPV causes many to be embarrassed and feel ashamed of their status. However, it is imperative to understand that the STI doesn't define you, and it doesn't diminish your self-worth.
The National Cancer Institute explains that HPV infects the squamous cells that line the inner surfaces of sexual organs. Atypical cells can be the telltale for HPV in many cases.
That said, the immune system usually controls HPV so the infection doesn't spread and cause cancer. Not every infection will cause symptoms, either. Some HPV strains and cell changes caused by persistent HPV will not show signs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers."
Upon my initial diagnosis, I had no external symptoms of HPV, but my pap smears were showing that my cells were atypical. It wasn't until my second pap smear and colposcopy that my doctor and I found out that I was positive for HPV, but negative for cancer.
My gynecologist helped me formulate a treatment plan to manage the symptoms and ensure that my body could fight it off, suggesting the following:
- Regular pap smears, every six months, to keep both of us up to date with any changes
- Checking for genital warts, which are often a symptom of HPV
- Colposcopy, to check the uterus and cervix for any cancerous cells
- Gardasil, for those who are unvaccinated and are under 46 years old. Vaccinations will help prevent infection in the future. The vaccine has not been licensed for use in people older than 45
Three friends, two of whom studied medicine, urged me to tell my partner. When I explained to him how common it was, he understood. He respected my feelings and was kind and patient with me; he told me that we would work through it together. Telling him was a major step for me, especially because my family doesn't even know. We had an open discussion about what I needed, emotionally and physically. It all came down to having the support that I needed to be comfortable with myself and not allow the diagnosis to become the most significant aspect of my life. We regularly discuss my treatment and how we want to proceed regarding intimacy. Every decision that is made we make together and work as a team.
Even though this STI is one of the most commonly diagnosed per year, and the National Cancer Institute states that almost every sexually active person will contract the infection, there is still stigma around it. The best way to combat stigma is education, which is also the best way for people to continue to make decisions for their sexual health. Informing oneself means that one can go about researching the ways that the infection is contracted and what preventative measures one can take. Here are some:
- Condoms and dental dams, while they don't completely eradicate the chance of getting infected, do lower the chances
- Vaccination for all girls and boys, starting at ages 11 to 12
- Quitting smoking might sound strange, but the immune system isn't at its best when you're regularly smoking
What it is important to remember is that HPV isn't a lifelong sentence; it usually clears up after a year or two. Your health care providers will ensure that your body is in proper fighting shape and help you keep up to date with how your body is dealing with the infection.
If your partner is diagnosed, remember to treat them with love, kindness, and understanding. No, this doesn't mean they cheated. HPV is something that most of us have lived with, and it can be treated. With support, they can continue to have a healthy sexual and romantic life.