I recently had the great misfortune of finding out that my mother in law, and sister in law thought that my sister in law was dying of cervical cancer. I ALSO had the great fortune of being able to tell my MIL and SIL that in fact she WASN’T dying of cervical cancer, because as it turned out not only does she not have cervical cancer, she doesn’t have pre-cancerous cells!
How can this happen? Well, as disgusting and horrendous as it is, a lot of doctors don’t do their jobs when explaining health issues/POTENTIAL health issues to their patients in ways that are clearly understood. You see, after talking to my MIL/SIL I discovered that she had been told she had pre-cancerous cells, then told that they made a mistake and that she didn’t. She was also told that she has the worst HPV strain, AND that she needs to “get healthy” so she can “fight the cancer in the future.” When you’re told that you have HPV this alone can be a shock, and can cause you to not be thinking clearly; top it with having information phrased in the worst way possible that is fear mongering, and not having an explanation of what hpv is and how common it is you can see how things get lost in translation.
The first thing I was able to explain is that there are different types of hpv. To keep things simple there are two groups; one is low risk and the other is high risk. Low risk hpv causes things like genital warts and does not cause cancer. The high risk hpv group has the POTENTIAL to cause cancer which means that you’re at an increased risk of cancer, but NOT that cancer is inevitable. Thankfully we have pap smears that are really good at catching cervical cell changes before/when they occur, and if you have high risk hpv all this means is that you need to have pap smears more frequently so that any changes will be caught early and treated if necessary. Think of it like a suspicious mole. If you notice a mole on your body that has changed, and doesn’t look quite right you get it checked out at the doctor. The doctor may look at it and conclude that it isn’t cancer, but that it COULD become cancer and so they remove it thereby PREVENTING the possible cancer. This is the same concept applied to cervical cancer. I just want to reiterate that having high risk hpv just means you’re more at RISK for developing cancer, and not that you WILL get it. If you are diligent with your screenings it will be kept well in hand. Yes, sometimes people may have really aggressive cervical cancer, or it’s not caught early. There are always exceptions to the rule. But so long as you do your pap smears, and do them diligently when you know you have extra risk factors, you’re doing everything you can to be proactive. Cervical cancer is slow growing so for the majority it is able to be caught and treated before it becomes life threatening!
On to my next point. Having hpv doesn’t make you “dirty” or “slutty” and you shouldn’t feel ashamed! Unfortunately sometimes regardless of our best efforts we contract infections, viruses, or bacteria etc. It’s a part of being human! Often people with hpv have no symptoms because their bodies are able to quickly clear the infection, and so it is unknowingly spread. The same can be said of other sexually transmitted infections. Always do your best to protect yourself, but know that if you contract a sexually transmitted illness (regardless of your best efforts not to) that it really is just a part of life! There’s only so much we can do, and as long as we do the best we can there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
The reason my SIL’s doctor told her to get healthy in the worst phrasing possible, was to convey that by being a healthy weight and having an active lifestyle you decrease your risk of developing cancer. This applies to MOST if not ALL cancers across the board. Being overweight and sedentary is a risk for many health issues, and her doctor failed her by not explaining this in a way she understood.
If you develop pre-cancerous cells, or cervical cancer your doctor will treat you ASAP. There are many treatment options that usually include burning the affected tissues, or freezing, and if necessary a total hysterectomy. If you have high risk hpv, but NO cell changes then your doctor will require more frequent paps (usually yearly vs every 3 years) so that they can make sure that everything is ok, and so that they can treat you should cell changes arise. I’m going to provide you all with two links about hpv and cervical cancer that I hope you all will read through if you’re not well versed on the topics. It’s important for us to know about these possible health risks so that we can make informed choices! My goal is to help educate people with vulvas, vaginas, uteruses, ovaries, and fallopian tubes about their bodies so that they, YOU, can feel empowered and know what to do should you ever encounter these health issues. Read HERE about HPV and Cancer and read HERE for “Understanding Cervical Changes” if the pdf doesn’t work please read HERE
Lastly, I want to offer some tips that I’ve learned in the last year for making pap smears a little bit more bearable. I was petrified of having paps because of my severe pain, and I admittedly waited longer to get my paps than I should have. I hope by offering these tips that those of you who are also afraid will muster the courage to get your paps and not risk your health! (This also applies to those of you, like myself, who have had a total hyst and who are having your post op checks where they swab the vaginal cuff).
- Tell your doctor that it hurts! More specifically tell them if you have pelvic floor dysfunction, IC, Endo, Adeno etc. This may be a no brainer if your gyn is the same one you see each time, but if you go to a clinic where you may have different residents performing your pap it’s good to make sure they know your history.
- If they don’t offer, ASK for them to apply some lidocaine! They should have some on hand and it’s as simple as them applying a small amount and waiting a couple of minutes for it to take effect before inserting the speculum.
- If they don’t offer, ASK for them to use a smaller speculum! I honestly didn’t know they made smaller speculums until my awesome doctor pulled one out after learning of my conditions!
I realize these tips may not be life altering, but it WILL help make your pap a smidge better, and if it helps you to stay on top of your pap smears please do it! Cervical cancer is preventable the majority of the time (CDC estimates 93%!CDC), and a pap smear could save your life.
Please help me to spread around this factual information about hpv and cervical cancer! Every woman should know this information, and I hope that my tips will help those of you with pain to get through your paps with a little less trauma! XO #TakeCareOfYourPeach
Myth: I have high risk HPV so that means I will get cervical cancer no matter what.
Fact: High risk HPV is just that, a RISK. With regular screenings cervical cancer is highly preventable/treatable!