I planned to publish this post a few years ago, but I kept putting it off. I told myself it wasn’t relevant to the topic of the blog and that nobody would want to read it anyway. This girl’s face made me change my mind.
The truth is, the topic is extremely personal to me and I rarely speak about it. It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever had to experience, so I hate thinking about it, let alone sharing it with others. However, if someone had warned me about HPV and cervical cancer I likely would have made getting screened a priority before mine progressed almost to the point of no return.
Here’s the post I wish I would have read.
1.) Closing your eyes and ignoring it will not make it disappear. I knew something was wrong. Random bleeding and spotting wasn’t unusual for me, but the dull, persistent ache that would radiate from my lower back, down my hips, and to my knees definitely was new, and something I certainly should have had checked.
Cervical cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced and hard to treat.
2.) HPV is extremely common. Extremely. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. Most will never know it because they won’t develop any symptoms. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own, but when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer.
If you’re really unlucky, like I was, you’ll have absolutely no warning signs until you’re already very, very sick. Mine had already progressed to Stage II before I made it a priority to get an exam.
Women may find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal Pap test result (during cervical cancer screening). Others may only find out once they’ve developed more serious problems from HPV, such as cancers.
3.) The types of HPV that cause cancer are not the kind that cause genital warts. Never in my life did I think I’d ever consider myself unlucky because I didn’t get genital warts, but that was my reality in 2008.
There are more than 100 types of HPV, 30-40 of which are sexually transmitted. Of these, at least 15 are high-risk HPV strains that can cause cervical cancer. The others cause no symptoms or genital warts.
4.) Monogamy only serves as adequate protection from HPV if the person you’re sleeping with is also monogamous. Since there’s virtually no way to know for certain your partner isn’t partnering up with someone else behind your back, play it safe and use condoms. If you’re unwilling to do that, make vaccination and annual screening a top priority. Trusting someone who didn’t deserve it nearly killed me.
Prevention is always better than treatment.
The most terrifying moment in my entire life was being told by my doctor that I had cancer. I was sitting on the exam table in a pale blue room with bright white overhead lights. When he told me, I felt my throat close up and my chest cave in. It was like the entire world stopped moving. The following year was a nightmare. Punch biopsies hurt. The cauterization with silver nitrate stings for days afterwards. I shook uncontrollably during my appointments because I was so scared the doctor would give me more bad news. I still get tremendous anxiety whenever I have to get screened (which is every six months now).
The entire process is stressful, scary, and often pretty painful. Treatment made me so sick. I lost about twenty pounds I couldn’t really afford to lose at the time, dropping down to barely 100 pounds by the time I was ready for my last surgery.
I would not wish a single day of what I went through on my worst enemy.
5.) Abnormal Pap tests need to be taken seriously. Insist on a DNA test. HPV types 16 and 18 account for 70% of all cervical cancers.
Persistent HPV infection can cause cervical and other cancers including:
- Vulvar cancer: About 69% are linked to HPV.
- Vaginal cancer: About 75% are linked to HPV.
- Penile cancer: About 63% are linked to HPV.
- Anal cancer: About 91% are linked to HPV.
- Cancer of the back of the throat: About 72% are linked to HPV. [Note: Many of these cancers may be related to tobacco and alcohol use]
ALMOST ALL CERVICAL CANCER IS CAUSED BY HPV.
6.) Cervical cancer can kill you. Joey Feek is haunting me. Stories about her appear on my Facebook feed every week. In case you didn’t know, she’s a country music singer who is dying of cervical cancer right now. Her husband’s blog about their experience is heartbreaking. Every time her name shows up in my feed, I worry that it’ll be to announce her death. If you aren’t moved yet to get screened, read Rory’s blog and look at what cervical cancer did to this beautiful, talented mother who will never get to see her infant daughter grow up. (Bring tissues. You will cry.)
I’m begging you to get screened. I know a lot of us are uninsured or severely underinsured, but please, please plan to have routine gynecological exams. You can’t afford not to. If even one of you reads this and takes it seriously, it’ll have been well worth the discomfort I’m enduring right now, writing about it.
More than 11,000 women in the US get cervical cancer each year. Please, don’t be one of them.