You’re a grown-ass woman, so I hope you’ll permit me to back away from the realm of zany “whoops, my life is a disaster lol”-style comedy this column normally puts forward. We’re not going too far afield, to be honest, as an HPV diagnosis also often comes with a “whoops” and “my life is a disaster,” though the “lol” portion is less common. Anyway, today is a Very Special Episode of the Grown-Ass Woman’s Guide, because I’ve been counselling some friends through HPV situations recently and have been struck by the misinformation, shaming, and all-around unnecessary stress-causers out there. So, without further ado:
Duh no duh, I know about this because I had HPV. And now I’m fine!
A real quick way to become an expert on something crappy (bed bugs, terrible boyfriends, cervical dysplasia) is to deal with it in your own life. Lucky me! Lucky all of us. About five years ago, I joined the nervous, quietly crying in the corner of the gynaecologist’s office ranks of the 75% of Canadian women who will get an HPV infection in their lifetime. It was a very stressful situation, and although my doctor assured me I was a) not going to immediately die of cervical cancer right there on the spot and b) had nothing to be ashamed of, I felt awful and upset and confused. I went home and Googled “HPV + Never Have Sex Again?” and resigned myself to a new life as a soon-to-be-dead person. Cut to: two years and one standard-issue colposcopy later, and the virus had cleared my system (or become inactive, it’s actually impossible to know if the virus is gone for good or simply dormant, one of this tricky infection’s many sneaky traits). I’ve since had a number of healthy pap tests, and make sure to attend my annual check up. While I wouldn’t wish any health problems on anyone, in the scope of things, this was actually not so bad. Plus, from my obsessive Night-Googling and long doctor chats, I now know a lot about the human papillomavirus that I am happy to share with you.
A Word On How Common HPV is (i.e. very common)
When I asked my doctor in England about HPV prevalence, she said, “For your generation, this is like the flu.” While this was a bit blasé for my tastes, she was not wrong to suggest that HPV is incredibly common. In Canada, the infection rate for women under 30 who have had more than one sexual partner is over 50%, and growing. As I said above, around 75% of sexually active Canadians will have at least one strain of HPV infection in their lifetime. This number will likely rise in the next few years, due to how difficult it is to stop transmission of HPV (which spreads through skin-to-skin contact), and how much us wild Millennials refuse to marry our first-ever boyfriends/girlfriends and settle down with one monogamous partner forever.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t be taking steps to prevent contracting it!
Some prevention options include the Gardasil vaccine, abstinence, or committing to one sexual partner for a long period of time. The use of condoms and other barrier methods during sex may lessen your risk, but can’t completely prevent HPV infection (although they still prevent a whole host of additional problems, so wrap it up). The most important way to keep yourself healthy with regards to HPV is to have regular yearly pap tests (if you have had an abnormal pap in the past year, you should be getting them twice per year until you’ve had a full year of normal tests).
Some things to remember when your doctor tells you you have HPV:
You are not going to die. You are not dirty. This is an extremely common virus that very often goes away on its own. Barring total abstinence, there was nothing you could have done to prevent this. You are not stupid, or gross, and have nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t blame your partner—with HPV it is impossible to know if you got the infection last week or three years ago. Don’t freak out. You’re going to be okay.
What Will Happen After An Abnormal Pap Test Result
In most cases, the only required medical follow up will be more frequent pap tests (twice yearly) until a normal result is produced. There are over 150 strains of HPV out there, and it’s mostly types 6 and 11 (responsible for 90% of genital warts and low-grade cervical lesions) and types 16 and 18 (responsible for most high-risk cervical lesions and cancer concerns) that you have to worry about. (Even so, most high-risk HPV infections go away on their own, monitored, within a year or two). If you have more than one abnormal pap, you’ll be sent for a colposcopy, which is an up-close examination of your cervix, no more or less uncomfortable than your average gynaecological exam. If your specialist finds anything abnormal on your colposcopy report, they’ll probably progress to a biopsy, just to check things out. If your cervix is fine, but you’ve wound up with genital warts, you have a few options: cryotherapy can be administered by your GP and will burn the warts off within a few weeks, or you can wait to see if they go away on their own, as they sometimes do.
A Further Word On Not Blaming Your Partner (Or Yourself)
When you first get diagnosed, it’s easy to want to blame someone, anyone else. A lot of the time, the easiest person to blame will be your most recent sexual partner. HOW COULD THEY, you were so careful about getting STI tests, they must be cheating, they’re so irresponsible, etc. etc. etc. Woah, Nelly. Slow down, Nelson. No one needs to be blamed here. HPV is something that happens, not a moral or mental failing on your or anyone else’s part. For one thing, current STI testing cannot detect HPV. Further, barring visible genital warts, there are no symptoms for HPV in men. Many people (men and women) who have HPV don’t even know about it, because the infection often arrives and then clears up on its own, symptom-free. Plus, as mentioned above, it’s impossible to know when you were infected. HPV is like a time-released, sexually transmitted ninja.
Whatever you do, do not seek information about HPV from that one episode of GIRLS.
As much as it gave us OUR generation’s quote about HPV, that is basically the only helpful thing this episode did. Like any other episode of GIRLS, it is not, shall we say, in any way grounded in anything that could remotely be called reality, I don’t care how aware of the idea of Twitter the show is. You do not publish a book based on one article you wrote about cocaine use for a website with “jazz” in the title, and you certainly do not have to “get your cervix scraped out” when you find out you have HPV. (The aforementioned potential biopsy would involve some cervical scraping, but it is not as huge a deal as Histrionic Hannah would have you or Adam believe.)
So be kind to yourself and take your health seriously but don’t freak. Remember: you’re going to be okay, you’re an adventurous woman by Lena Dunham’s standards, and you are very lucky to live in a country with affordable health care options. Plus if you see me out and about I can teach you the cool HPV Club handshake I learned!
For more info check out the very helpful and non-judgmental HPVinfo.ca.