Category Archives: Human Papillomavirus

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

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!

Don’t Be Afraid of Your Vagina

By Nell Frizzel

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Lying across a turquoise rubber plinth, my legs in stirrups, a large blue sheet of paper draped across my pubes (for “modesty”), a doctor slowly pushes a clear plastic duck puppet up my vagina and, precisely at that moment, Total Eclipse of the Heart comes on over the radio and it’s hard not to love the genitourinary medicine, or GUM, clinic.

I mean that most sincerely: I love the GUM clinic. It is wonderful beyond orgasm that in the UK anyone can walk into a sexual health clinic—without registering with a doctor, without an appointment, without any money, without a chaperone—and get seen within a few hours at most. It brings me to the point of climax just thinking about the doctors and health professionals who dedicate their life to the nation’s ovaries, cervixes, vaginas, and wombs.

And yet, not all women are apparently so comfortable discussing their clitoral hall of fame with a doctor. According to a recent report commissioned by Ovarian Cancer Action, almost half of the women surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 said they feared “intimate examinations,” while 44 percent are too embarrassed to talk about sexual health issues with a GP. What’s more, two thirds of those women said they would be afraid to say the word “vagina” in front of their doctor. Their doctor. That is desperately, disappointingly, dangerously sad.

In 2001, I went to see a sexual health nurse called Ms. Cuthbert who kindly, patiently and sympathetically explained to me that I wasn’t pregnant—in fact could not be pregnant—I was just doing my A-Levels. The reason I was feeling sick, light-headed, and had vaginal discharge that looked like a smear of cream cheese was because I was stressed about my simultaneous equations and whether I could remember the order of British prime ministers between 1902 to 1924. My body was simply doing its best to deal with an overload of adrenaline.

Back then, my GUM clinic was in a small health center opposite a deli that would sell Czechoslovakian beer to anyone old enough to stand unaided, and a nail bar that smelled of fast food. I have never felt more grown up than when I first walked out of that building, holding a striped paper bag of free condoms and enough packets of Microgynon to give a fish tits. My blood pressure, cervix, heartrate, and emotional landscape had all been gently and unobtrusively checked over by my new friend Ms. Cuthbert. I had been given the time and space to discuss my hopes and anxieties and was ready to launch myself, legs akimbo, into a world of love and lust—all without handing over a penny, having to tell my parents, pretending that I was married or worry that I was being judged.

My local sexual health clinic today is, if anything, even more wonderful. In a neighborhood as scratched, scored, and ripped apart by the twin fiends of poverty and gentrification as Hackney, the GUM clinic is the last great social leveler. It is one of our last few collective spaces. Sitting in reception, staring at the enormous pictures of sand dunes and tree canopies it is clear that, for once, we’re all in this together. The man in a blue plastic moulded chair wishing his mum a happy birthday on the phone, the two girls in perfect parallel torn jeans scrolling through WhatsApp, the guy with the Nike logo tattoo on his neck getting a glass of water for his girlfriend, the red-headed hipster in Birkenstocks reading about witchcraft in the waiting room, the mother and daughter with matching vacuum-sized plastic handbags talking about sofas, the fake flowers, Magic FM playing on the wall-mounted TV, the little kids running around trying to say hello to everyone while the rest of us desperately avoided eye contact—the whole gang was there. And that’s the point: you may be a working mum, you may be a teenager, you may be a social media intern at a digital startup, you may be a primary school teacher, you may be married, single, a sex worker, unemployed, wealthy, religious, terrified, or defiant but whatever your background, wherever you’ve come from and whoever you slept with last night, you’ll end up down at the GUM clinic.

Which is why it seems such a vulvic shame that so many women feel scared to discuss their own bodies with the person most dedicated to making sure that body is OK. “No doctor will judge you when you say you have had multiple sexual partners, or for anything that comes up in your sexual history,” Dr. Tracie Miles, the President of the National Forum of Gynecological Oncology Nurses tells me on the phone. “We don’t judge—we’re real human beings ourselves. If we hadn’t done it we probably wish we had and if we have done it then we will probably be celebrating that you have too.”

Doctors are not horrified by women who have sex. Doctors are not grossed out by vaginas. So to shy away from discussing discharge, pain after sex, bloating, a change in color, odor, itching, and bleeding not only renders the doctor patient conversation unhelpful, it also puts doctors at a disadvantage, hinders them from being able to do their job properly, saves nobody’s blushes and could result in putting you and your body at risk.

According to The Eve Appeal—a women’s cancer charity that is campaigning this September to fight the stigma around women’s health, one in five women associate gynecological cancer with promiscuity. That means one in five, somewhere in a damp and dusty corner of their minds, are worried that a doctor will open up her legs, look up at her cervix and think “well you deserve this, you slut.” Which is awful, because they won’t. They never, ever would. Not just because they’re doctors and therefore have spent several years training to view the human body with a mix of human sympathy and professional dispassion, but more importantly, because being promiscuous doesn’t give you cancer.

“There is no causal link between promiscuity and cancer,” says Dr. Miles. “The only sexually transmitted disease is the fear and embarrassment of talking about sex; that’s what can stop us going. If you go to your GP and get checked out, then you’re fine. And you don’t have to know all the anatomical words—if you talk about a wee hole, a bum hole, the hole where you put your Tampax, then that is absolutely fine too.”

Although there is some evidence of a causal link between certain gynecological cancers and High Risk Human Papilloma Virus (HRHPV), that particular virus is so common that, ‘it can be considered a normal consequence of sexual activity’ according to The Eve Appeal. Eighty percent of us will pick up some form of the HPV virus in our lifetime, even if we stick with a single, trustworthy, matching-socks-and-vest-takes-out-the-garbage-talks-to-your-mother-on-the-phone-can’t-find-your-clitoris partner your entire life. In short, HRHPV may lead to cancer, but having different sexual partners doesn’t. Of course, unprotected sex can lead to an orgy of other sexually transmitted infections, not to mention the occasional baby, but promiscuity and safe sex are not mutually exclusive. And medical professionals are unlikely to be shocked by either.

We are incredibly lucky in the UK that any woman can stroll into a sexual health clinic, throw her legs open like a cowboy and receive some of the best medical care the world has ever known. We can Wikipedia diagrams of our vaginas to learn the difference between our frenulum and prepuce (look it up, gals). We can receive free condoms any day of the (working week) from our doctor or friendly neighborhood GUM clinic. We can YouTube how to perform a self-examination, learn to spot the symptoms of STIs, read online accounts by women with various health conditions, and choose from a military-grade arsenal of different contraception methods, entirely free.

A third of women surveyed by The Eve Appeal said that they would feel more comfortable discussing their vaginas and wombs if the stigma around gynecological health and sex was reduced. But a large part of removing that stigma is up to us. We have to own that conversation and use it to our advantage. We need to bite the bullet and start talking about our pudenda. We have to learn to value and accept our genitals as much as any other part of our miraculous, hilarious bodies.

So come on, don’t be a cunt. Open up about your vagina.

Complete Article HERE!

HPV, WTF?

Here’s an exchange I had with a fellow named Angel. He writes:

I have a friend that has HPV. We spoke about being together but I’m nervous about this because I don’t know enough about HPV. Like how safe would I be if we were to mess around and or have sex? I wait to here back from you. Thank you for your time.

Here’s what I know, Angel…

  • HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common virus that infects the skin and mucous membranes.
  • There are about 100 types of HPV. Approximately 30 of those are spread through genital contact (typically fucking). Around 12 of these types are called “low-risk” types of HPV, which can cause genital warts.
  • In addition, there are approximately 15 “high-risk” types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
  • It is estimated that 80 percent of all women – and 50 percent of men and women combined – will get one or more types of “genital” HPV at some point in their lives.

As you can see, this is a very widespread virus. However, it’s relatively easy to protect yourself. Use a condom. You were gonna do that anyway, right?stis-1

And, as you probably know, there is a human papillomavirus vaccine is used to prevent infection by HPV strains 16 and 18, which causes most cancers of the cervix, as well as some cancers of the vulva, vagina and penis. Infection with HPV strain 16 also causes most anal cancers and some throat cancers.

This vaccine, given to young men and women ages 9 through 26, prevents pre-cancerous changes that may become cancer. HPV vaccination is currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all boys and girls ages 11 or 12, and for men and women ages 13 through 26 who have not already received the vaccine or have not completed booster shots.

Depending on the specific vaccine used, it may also prevent genital warts caused by other strains of HPV. This vaccine will not cure an HPV infection that is already present, and does not prevent other sexually transmitted diseases.

condom_STI_titlesThe HPV vaccine is given as a series of three injections into the muscle in the upper arm or thigh. The first shot may be given any time beginning at 9 years of age. The second dose is given 2 months after the first shot, and the third dose is given 6 months after the first shot. The protective effects of the vaccine last for approximately 5 years. Whether or not a booster is needed after five years is not yet known.

Angel writes back with:

Yes ok then sorry I just figured it’s easier to be safe and just not go there. We are really good friends and don’t want to wreck that by worrying about what I may, or may not catch. He doesn’t want me to use condoms for oral sex.

I don’t suppose you happen to know what kind of HPV this person has, do you? That makes a big difference, ya know.

Many people are unclear on the risks associated with oral sex and HPV. It can be passed during oral sex, but it is rare. To reduce the risk of infection during unprotected oral sex, limit exposure to sexual fluids and ensure that no cuts or lesions are present in your mouth or on your partner’s genitals. But, in the end, your safest bet is use a condom. If he doesn’t want you to use a condom, tell him to such his own dick.

Good luck