Let Me Slide In Your Inbox!
It has been a year, one week, and three days since I had my first abnormal pap smear. At this time, I learned that I had contracted human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI).
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80 million Americans (1 in 4) are infected with HPV, a highly complex group of more than 150 viruses. While some strands of the virus can cause papillomas, or genital warts, others can cause cancer.
I contracted the strands that can cause cancer, and in particular, two of the most aggressive strands within that subset.
When my doctor delivered the news last March, she said, “Try not to worry. Come back in June for a follow up pap smear and we will monitor things.” If you know me, you know I worried.
After a more concerning second abnormal pap smear, I was referred to a specialist (an OBGYN) to have a colposcopy. You can read more about what this entails at Mayo Clinic.
In short, a colposcopy is a biopsy procedure to determine if the abnormal cells are precancerous or cancerous. The entire procedure took about 20 minutes and I was able to see my cervix projected up on the screen. It was uncomfortable because they have to manipulate and clamp your cervix throughout. I ended up passing out afterward and crying in my car trying to regain my composure to drive home.
While waiting for these results, I took to the internet. I Googled all types of things. Namely, I searched for images of a cervix with cervical cancer, so I could compare it to what I had seen during my colposcopy. I found comfort in that my cervix looked nothing like these images, but I still had anxiety. Research suggested that cervical cancer was slow-developing (ten years or more in many cases). Knowing that 2019 marked ten years of me being sexually active I went down so many rabbit holes. What if I contracted it years ago with my first sexual partner? And what if the symptoms just manifested? And what if it is cervical cancer?
The results ended up being the “best” case scenario… they were all precancerous. The OBGYN specialist told me that I needed to have a Loop Electrosurgical Exision Procedure (LEEP). We scheduled that as soon as possible. Read more about this surgery HERE. I had the LEEP on September 21, 2018, and a two-week follow-up appointment afterward.
At this appointment, I asked the doctor if there was anything that I could be doing to help my body clear the infection. She told me that I needed to remove stressors from my life [check! I had already put in my notice at my old job] and improve my immune system with healthy diet, exercise, and a daily multi-vitamin. I told her I was moving to Florida at the end of October, so she handed me my records and reminded me again about those follow-up pap smears every 3 months.
Now, with that back story… I want to share more intimate details throughout this year-long (and counting) journey with this HPV diagnosis. Here are 6 very important lessons I have learned. I share them because I think they will help other women in this situation. I also think they are applicable to our lives in other ways as well, even if you are struggling with a different health issue or a different hardship.
1. Ask more questions about HPV treatments.
I cannot stress this one enough. Would you believe me if I told you that I never once asked if there was another option besides the LEEP? Would you believe me if I told you that it was only when I was prepped for surgery, IV in hand, prior to anesthesia that the surgeon was briefing me for the first time? Example: She told me that having the LEEP jeopardizes the integrity of my cervix and decreases my chances of being able to carry a child to term by 50%. [Continue to read for another opinion on that statistic].
I look back and question where my voice was in these moments. Of course, I trust medical professionals, but I also have to acknowledge that every body is different. Physically, genetically, biologically, etc. Maybe the LEEP procedure is the go-to approach, but maybe there was another way.
When opening up to friends after, I learned that a lot of their doctors chose to monitor them closely. Over time, their abnormal cells went away on their own. So looking back, I wish I had asked more questions about ALL my options, at each step along the way.
2. Be your own advocate when it comes to your health.
The first question I asked was toward the end… “What can I do to make this better?” However, I felt like the advice I was given was not concrete or specific enough. For example, how could a multivitamin target my specific issue? I decided to go home and start researching vitamins that have been shown to help with HPV. I found a combination of three: MTFH (methyltetrahydrofolate), Vitamin E (with mixed tocopherols), and Vitamin A. Each of these helps with generation of healthy cells and work as antioxidants to fight cell damage. Seemed targeted enough for me.
I put myself on this daily regimen. However, I would not have done so if I just accepted the doctor’s blasé answer of a daily multivitamin. Do some research of your own!
3. Don’t worry about “who dun it?!”
I was asked by a few people… “Who gave it to you?”
To put it simply, I don’t know. It is possible for you to contract HPV and have it lay dormant in your system for years. It’s also possible that I contracted it between my last normal pap smear in 2015 and 2018. And if so, then I could narrow it down to a couple guys.
But guess what? It doesn’t matter. Once you contract HPV, you will always be a carrier of the virus, even when your body clears the infection. So, why sit around and question who the culprit was?
Your focus should not be on the things you cannot change, but finding a way to move forward with treatment and future monitoring.
4. Preventative medicine exists for a reason.
Ladies: Do not skip your annual physical. Do not skip that pap smear. Or that mammogram. Gents: Same to you. Yearly physicals. Colonoscopies after 50 years old. Etc. These measures of preventative care are how serious conditions are prevented. When viruses are caught early, healthcare professionals can intervene in time. Do not think that because you feel healthy, you are. Our bodies are complex and it’s sometimes difficult to say what is going on internally.
And oh, if you’re a parent of a young teen… be sure to research the benefits of having your child vaccinated to see if it is something you feel your child should have. You have probably seen the HPV commercials where the children are questioning whether their parents knew that there was a vaccine that could have protected them. I understand the emotional appeal as a marketing technique, but I do not like how it almost places blame on parents. All that being said, educate yourself on vaccination. [Continue reading for more information about this vaccine!]
5. Don’t resent your body.
This past year, I’ve resented my body. More specifically, I’ve resented my vagina, and that’s just being really blunt and honest. I felt like my body had failed me and allowed my most sacred and powerful organ to become infected. I felt ashamed, confused, and fearful. Sexy? Hell no. Sick? Dirty? Unworthy? Yes.
I wish I had thought about how the body’s natural instinct is to heal. I have always been fascinated by this simple fact. Whether it be as minor as a paper-cut or a severe as a broken bone, it’s amazing how our bodies lead the way to healing.
However, our minds play a role in the healing process, too. My mind got in the way. I fretted over every pain, every test result, every little thing throughout this process. And I’ll show myself some grace here because it is hard not to. So whatever your body may be fighting, always remind yourself: “My body wants to heal, but my mind must let it.”
6. Find a doctor that helps you create a positive mindset.
I post this blog about one week after meeting with my new OBGYN down here in Florida. Mind you… I stressed over the fact that I had, due to being between insurance coverage, missed my 3 month pap smear post-LEEP that my previous OBGYN told me not to miss. When my new insurance became active, I then stressed again because this doctor had a month-long waiting list. I was told that he is the BEST and well worth the wait, so I waited. And I stressed, because I’d be pushing 6 months post-surgery.
And let me tell you… his care was exceptional. He was well worth the wait. I could go on and on about his approach to the his appointment, from his energetic demeanor to the manner in which he listened and addressed my concerns, but in a nutshell:
He told me that I should be proud of the way I took control of my health and he apologized that my previous OBGYN didn’t offer other forms of treatment. That being said, he did say that the LEEP would have been what he recommended and that if she never told me to… I should pat myself on the back for staying up-to-date on my pap smears and having the LEEP.
I asked him about the negative implications for bearing a child after a LEEP and he said, “Those statistics are not upheld by any level of research. They just are not true. When you’re ready to have a baby, we’ll measure your cervix and monitor appropriately.”
I told him I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to have kids, but I just didn’t want my ability to be taken away because of a procedure I was told I needed, but maybe could have done something different instead. He smiled jokingly and said, “You come back to me when you’re puking.” (NOTE: Out of context, I could see where this could be taken offensively, as if I don’t know what I want and as if it’s not okay for me to not want kids, but the way he said it was more confirmation that I will be able to get pregnant in the future, if that’s what I choose).
During this conversation, he also suggested that 3 months was too often to be getting pap smears and that the 6 month time frame I was currently in was perfect, which made all my stressing and worrying seem ridiculous.
And lastly, he let me know that I am a candidate for the HPV vaccine, which previously had an age cut-off at 26. Gardasil 9 has recently been approved for ages 27-45 and could protect me against strands of HPV I have not been exposed to.
He put a lot of my fears to rest, fears that have been manifesting for a year. He also provided more information in 20 minutes than I was given in an entire year by previous physicians.
And this next part might seem a little strange to some, but during the pap smear, he was complimenting my vagina.
“Normal… normal… perfect… cervix looks great!” and “You have TINY ovaries! Good lord.”
I hesitated, “Are tiny ovaries a good thing?” #clueless
He laughed, “It’s a very good thing. I’m paying you a compliment!”
Now, some women may be uncomfortable with a man (who is not their husband or S/O) saying that their vagina is “perfect” but I swear… this was exactly what I needed to hear after a year of resenting mine.
I walked out of that office like:
For the first time in a year, I felt at peace knowing that my body is on its way to healing even though I am not completely out of the woods. I was at peace knowing that I have a doctor, who in just one visit, had completely changed my mindset and outlook on this entire diagnosis. Find yourself a physician who makes you feel good about yourself and your ability to manage your health.
In closing, I want to say this. Living with HPV is mentally challenging… as is ANY medical illness. I share my story with you and anyone else you feel inclined to share this blog with. I share it without fear of judgment regarding my sex life (past or present) because HPV affects so many people… as do other medical diagnoses like down-syndrome, heart disease, cancer, etc. I believe in the power of storytelling to help educate, inform, and bring peace to others suffering in similar ways that I did over the past year, who simply need to know they aren’t alone. Please reach out to me if you are struggling or need someone to talk to!
And if you all were curious… the office called the other day to deliver the news:
A NORMAL PAP SMEAR! 🙂
FEATURED IMAGE BY: BEATRIZ PEREZ MOYA