How a Cervical Cancer Scare Made Me Take My Sexual Health More Seriously Than Ever

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My doctor’s advice on how to not get HPV again threw me for a loop.

By Rachel Bowyer

Before I had an abnormal Pap smear five years ago, I didn’t even really know what that meant. I’d been going to the gyno since I was a teenager, but I never once really thought about what a Pap smear was actually testing for. I just knew I’d have a “twinge” of discomfort, as my doc always says, and then it would be over. But when my doctor called me to tell me I needed to come back in for more testing, I was pretty concerned. (Here, find more on how to decipher your abnormal Pap smear results.)

She assured me that abnormal Paps are actually quite normal, especially for women in their 20s. Why? Well, the more sexual partners you have, the more likely you are to get human papillomavirus (HPV), which is what generally causes the abnormal results. I quickly found out that it was the cause of mine, too. Most of the time, HPV resolves on its own, but in some cases, it can escalate into cervical cancer. What I didn’t know at the time is that there are several steps between testing positive for HPV and actually having cervical cancer. After having a couple of colposcopies, procedures where a tiny bit of tissue is removed from your cervix for closer examination (yes, it’s as uncomfortable as it sounds), we discovered that I had what’s known as high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions. That’s just a technical way of saying that the HPV I had was more advanced and more likely to turn into cancer than other kinds. I was scared, and I got even more scared when I found out I had to have a procedure to remove the tissue on my cervix that was affected, and that it needed to be done ASAP—before it got worse. (According to new research, cervical cancer is deadlier than previously thought.)

Within two weeks of finding out about my abnormal Pap, I had something called a loop extrosurgical excision procedure, or LEEP for short. It involves using a very thin wire with an electrical current to cut away precancerous tissue from the cervix. Normally, this can be done with local anesthesia, but after an attempt that went awry (apparently, local anesthetic isn’t as effective for everyone as it’s supposed to be, and I found that out the hard way…), I had to make a second trip to the hospital to have it done. This time, I was sedated. After six weeks, I was declared healthy and ready to go, and told I needed to have a Pap smear every three months for the next year. Then, I’d go back to having them once yearly. Let’s just say I’m not a great patient, so after all was said and done I knew I never wanted to have to go through this process again. Since there are over 100 strains of HPV, I knew it was a real possibility that I could contract it again. Only a small number of the strains cause cancer, but at that point, I really didn’t want to take any chances.

When I asked my doctor how to prevent this situation from happening again, her advice really surprised me. “Become monogamous,” she said. “That’s my only option?” I thought. I was dealing with the perils of the New York City dating scene at the time, and at that point couldn’t even imagine meeting someone I’d want to go on more than five dates with, let alone finding my mate for life. I had always been under the impression that as long as I was *safe* about sex, opting not to settle down wouldn’t be detrimental to my health. I almost always used condoms and got tested for STIs regularly.

Turns out, even if you use a condom every single time you have sex, you can still get HPV because condoms don’t offer complete protection against it. Even when used correctly, you can still have skin-to-skin contact when using a condom, which is how HPV is passed from one person to another. Pretty crazy, right? I didn’t think there was anything wrong with not wanting to be monogamous (and still don’t), so it was hard to grasp the fact that my ideological stance on sex was directly opposed to what was best for my sexual health. Was my only option truly to settle down at 23 and decide to only have sex with one person for the rest of my life? I wasn’t ready for that.

But according to my doctor, the answer was essentially, yes. To me, this seemed extreme. She repeated to me that the fewer partners you have, the lower your risk of contracting HPV. Of course, she was right. Though you can still get HPV from a long-term partner that could take years to show up, once your body clears whatever strains they have, you won’t be able to get it from them again. As long as you and your partner are only having sex with each other, you’re good to go in terms of re-infection. At the time, I was pretty taken aback by the fact that the best thing I could do to protect my sexual health was basically to not have sex until I found “the one.” What if I never found that person? Should I just be celibate forever!? For the next couple of years every time I even thought about having sex with someone, I had to ask myself, “Is this really worth it?” Talk about a mood killer. (FYI, these STIs are much harder to get rid of than they used to be.)

Truthfully, it didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing. Whenever I decided to have sex with someone in the years after that, not only did I follow safe-sex practices to the letter, but I also knew that I had strong enough feelings about the other person for it to be worth the risk I was facing. Basically, that meant I was genuinely emotionally invested in every person I slept with. While some would say that’s how it should be all the time, I don’t really subscribe to that school of thought—in principle. In practice, however, I did save myself a ton of heartache. Since I had fewer partners who I got to know better, I dealt with less post-sex ghosting. Some people might not mind that, but even when I wasn’t super-invested in someone, the ghosting part almost always sucked.

Now, five years later, I happen to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. While I can’t say that it happened directly because of my experience or my doctor’s advice, it’s certainly a relief when what your heart wants and what’s best for your health happen to match up. And not having to constantly worry about HPV the way I once did? Love.

Complete Article HERE!

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