The Human Papillomavirus

I came home from uni that day, iPod blaring in my ears. I’d danced all the way from the tram to my front door, singing loudly as I’d gone. Mum was standing in the kitchen with a vacant expression on her face and tried to say something but I couldn’t hear her over the sound of Dangerously In Love beating in my ears, so I shook my ass at her while she shook her head at me. She waited for me to finish my best interpretive Beyonce solo dance performance before she tried to speak again.

“Where did I go wrong,” she frowned at me as I pulled my headphones off, “the doctor rang.”

I went to the fridge and pulled out a carton of milk, “yeah, what he say?”

“You need to call him back,” she looked at me sternly, “they wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. Your own mother,” she clucked her tongue as she passed me the phone. “I gave birth to you, since when does that give the doctor the right to withhold information from me?”

I knew what she really meant was that we did everything together and knew everything about each other—the family GP knew this, and she felt affronted by his refusal to acknowledge it. She was worried about me and she wanted special treatment for our closeness, for all those times she’d held my hand in his office, from my first pap smear to my various colds and flu. So did I, sort of, and besides, it would have been much easier to hear the news from the woman I was pushed into the world by, as opposed to the doctor’s secretary.

The phone rang in my hand and a chirpy woman’s voice answered.

“It’s Katherine George, you left a message from me.”

“Ah yes,” I could hear her shuffling papers on the other end, “you’ve had an irregular pap smear, you need to come back in and talk to the doctor. Does tomorrow morning at 9am suit you?”

The rest was surreal. Having had a clear bill of sexual health since I became sexually active at 16, I felt like half of me had been anticipating this day. All the older women in my life were saying things like “oh, I remember my first irregular pap test, it happens to everyone, you’ll be fine.” But there was always that little voice in my own head, the one saying, “you damn fool Kat, you damn fucking fool.”

I barely remember the doctor telling me I had the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). All the words were flooding against my face, spilling over the top of my head and rushing down my back while I sat there, inert. Inside, I was screaming.

I know that when he told me I was in stage 3 of the virus the screaming inside me stopped and it was replaced with a sort of dull thud. The virus had developed at a rapid pace, considering my last pap test 18 months ago was clear. Thud. The next stage is cervical cancer. Thud. You’ll have to have further tests. Thud. A biopsy. Thud. You’ll live with this for the rest of your life. Thud, thud, thud, thud.

I made a lot of jokes afterwards. I told all my friends I was dying of cancer so they’d better do nice things for me. I made my mother cry when I told her it was OK, if they cut my uterus out I’d just go to Africa and steal babies with celebrities. I was insensitive and mean—I didn’t notice that other people were hurting too, all I knew was that if I kept laughing about it then it didn’t really matter, not that much anyway.

When I finally broke, it was very difficult to un-break. I cried a lot. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me. I’d only had a handful of sexual partners and the only unprotected sex I’d had was with boyfriends who had been checked for STDs. I was immunised against HPV when I was 21—a fact that scared me more than anything, the knowledge that this thing could have been hiding inside me for up to 5 years completely undetected.

I learned a lot in the past year. I learned that at some point in their lives, 4 out of 5 Australians will have HPV. I learned that sometimes the body fights HPV and can eradicate it without medical interference. I learned that men can be vaccinated against the disease but that the Australian government only subsidised the immunisation for women. I learned that while men are carriers, there are no harmful long-term effects for them of having the disease, aside from that they could pass it on to a woman who could get cervical cancer and die. I learned that that’s a negligible consequence really—collateral damage.

I’ve learned that it’s difficult to walk around with a possibility of something ugly inside you. I’ve learned that the 6 months between tests seems like eternity. I’ve learned that it’s hard not to think of those miniature eternities as though they might be the last without cancer. I’ve learned that hearing “the virus is still in you. But there’s nothing we can do until it either regresses or develops,” makes me want to punch my doctor in the face; fancy sitting around doing nothing and just waiting for cancer. I‘ve learned that there’s no cure for HPV. That maybe my cervix will have to be burned. That maybe I won’t be able to have children. I’ve learned that I can be a very pessimistic person. TC mark

image – euthman

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  • http://brianmcelmurry.blogspot.com/ Brian McElmurry

    Brave! I think %50-70 population has this in one form.

    • freddipass

      Try 90% as my doctor last said. It just sorta lives in us.

  • privatei

    i'm so sorry this happened to you. i wish you all the best.

  • nolemonomelon

    this is incredibly brave. thank you for helping to break down the walls of shame, silence & stigma around this.

  • Bob

    HPV has been associated with a particularly aggressive form of head and neck cancer in men, so there are risks to men from the virus.

    • Katgeorge

      I didn't know that! It wasn't stated in any of the literature I read (a lot) which obviously is another problem with awareness surrounding the virus.

      • freddipass

        Kat,   Please know that doctors like to make things sound really, really bad using words like “cancer” and “biopsy” (I've been through all of this you speak of, more than once (i.e. more than one biopsy and 'leap' procedure) and it always clears up on its own.  I'm not saying it ALWAYS does for everyone but doctors want to make money too and medicine is so far from an exact science it's disturbing.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2VXPKDT5ZYPBKSVYUKWCOZ4PU4 le gnome

        While I am glad that yours has cleared up, and agree that many cases do go dormant on their own, there are PLENTY of cases where women get full blown cancer or a lifetime of abnormal cells popping up.

      • freddipass

        My point is only that “abnormal cells” sounds really bad but our bodies are filled with “abnormal cells” and as long as it's monitored it should be fine. Not “don't monitor it.”

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2VXPKDT5ZYPBKSVYUKWCOZ4PU4 le gnome

      Has been associated.. but not solid links. HPV can kill women, can take away their ability to have children – FACT.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CaseyJonesATX Casey Jones

    Cue countdown to 3 or 4 more articles on living with various viruses and disease in 5 ….. 4…… 3…….

    • Woyzeck

      Fuck you.

      • http://www.facebook.com/CaseyJonesATX Casey Jones

        Care to articulate that Woyzeck? I found this article enlightening and informative. I also found some parallels with my experiences with other diseases that I have had. Is there something abhorrent about noticing patterns in emergence of themes across articles? Do you find my comment belittling?

      • http://exitclov.tumblr.com exitclov

        Yeah, your comment definitely sounded belittling. If you could have simply worded it in the way you just did with your followup, it probably would not have come off that way.

    • Jordan

      Good article, doesn't change the fact that this comment is totally apropos.  Anytime something a little new hits the TC newsstands you can expect several (usually inferior) knockoff posts in 24-48 hours.

  • Andrew Edminister

    I hope you make it through this with whatever the minimal damage is. Nobody deserves to hear something like that. I totally feel the doctor-punching part, because it seems like there should be SOMETHING we could do about this, and other diseases. All the best.

  • Carrie

    Men can't be tested for HPV. That's why you can be with someone you trust completely and you can still get it. Thank you for being so brave and posting this. More people need to talk about this virus, since it's so widespread and so hard to detect. 

    An optimistic word on this: My friends have had it and their bodies have fought it off. It can take up to 4 years, but in most cases it does cure itself.

    • Katgeorge

      It's the secret STD–we're so aware of all the others but this is the one that's the most common and spreads the most easily… Where's the education?

      • freddipass

        It's the same for almost any virus. The education is everywhere!

  • Ms C

    I had it too and I know exactly how you feel. In my case, once the lesion was removed, I gradually recovered. Keep your spirits high…sometimes there are happy endings. J

  • Duke Holland of Gishmale

    I've also got HPV. Got it when my high school girlfriend secretly cheated on me with some creepy twenty-six year old who still worked as a bag boy at the local grocery store. I don't have a very serious case and I think my body fought it down many years ago. However, I freaked for the year I found out. But, what I'm trying to say, I feel your pain. It gets easier.

  • carlywho

    I had it, too. It's gone now. Everything is fine.

  • slutidarity

    Thanks for writing this. I tested positive a while back and had to have a biopsy, which was not fun. (For everyone else: imagine local anesthetic being injected into your cervix to numb the pain while they scrape off bits of cervical tissue for testing.) I'm waiting on the results of my second smear test right now, actually. 

    More women need to know about HPV transmission, especially since it can lead to cervical cancer. Sadly, men can't be tested for the virus, which is why so many women get infected and never know. In Britain, the NHS doesn't offer smear tests to women under 25 because the risk of HPV is apparently 'lower' – I say bullshit, I was 21 when I was diagnosed. In conclusion: women, get tested regularly if you're sexually active, go private if you need to, whatever. Don't fuck with your health.  

    • Katgeorge

      I had to have a biopsy with no anaesthetic… WOW.

      Sorry to hear that you're part of the 'club' too! The saddest part is that it's such a big club and–you're right–it's because it's a widely spread illness with so little awareness surrounding it. I never heard 'HPV' in high school, just things like 'unwanted pregnancy' and 'aids'. Those things are dangerous too, but HPV is so prevalent, I feel like it should be discussed more in sexual education and in the public sphere!

      When I was diagnosed it was genuinely frightening how many of my girlfriends admitted they had it too. And even more so when so many of my male friends had no idea what it was, just that it 'sounded scary'

      • slutidarity

        I am literally clutching my pearls right now. No anaesthetic… Jesus fucking Christ, girl, you are made of steel.

        The only reason I even knew about HPV before I tested positive was because the vaccine had only just come out then. (BTW everyone should get vaccinated – even men. Gardasil helps prevent genital warts too.) You're totally right about the need for more education, most people don't know that genital warts are caused by HPV and that women can get cervical cancer from the virus.

        Yup, none of my male friends knew what it was either. On the other hand, given that I cried and screamed at them for months after I was diagnosed and warned them that their bodies were probably illicitly harbouring cancer-causing viruses, they're pretty well-informed now. Yay education, I guess?

      • Katgeorge

        I just had an 'OW MA GAWD!' moment. I did the EXACT same thing to my male friends. So much crying and screaming and even threw a few bits and pieces at them.

      • http://profiles.google.com/elysedc elyse cantor

        same here with the “no anaesthetic” biopsy…OWWWW. worst part was, I had only had (and still have only had) 2 sexual partners in my life: one after I turned 18 (and had the vaccination) and one before. With my first, we took each others' virginity, so I foolishly assumed I was completely fine.

        Couldn't help but cry when I got the news – it's scary as shit, and I still feel like I have no idea what it is I have. Bonus: since the dr. said I definitely contracted it before the vaccine, there's only one person I could have gotten it from… and I wasn't sad that douchey Mr. High-school cheated on me (I knew about it at the time, but had no idea what the implications meant for me…) but I was sad because I felt so dirty. I felt like I had gotten my current long-term boyfriend dirty. Like I was a whore or something – like I did something dirty to contract this. Clearly I have my own issues with sexuality, but knowing that my boyfriend had to dip his dick in acid to see if I had GIVEN him something made me feel so incredibly dirty – how could it not? Luckily, new boyfriend is very non-douche.

        Went back to the old bf to very, very awkwardly warn him what he was (definitely unknowingly) carrying so he didn't go around giving it to other girls. I don't think he listened. :/ Wish Kat was there to throw bits and pieces at him.

  • KT

    i have it too. your experience hits really close to home. my case also progressed to stage 3, i had to have an out-patient procedure to remove the pre-cancerous cells. the best thing my doctor told me to do is to try to be as stress-free as possible (which is super difficult i know). flare ups are more likely to happen under high stress circumstances. yoga and cycling has helped a lot with de-stressing. im a little less paranoid now (its been 2 years), but it definitely is even more nerve wracking going to gynecologist now.

  • Jordan

    Does this have anything to do with you writing the post about condoms a while back?

    • Katgeorge

      Well I wouldn't say the two are mutually exclusive, but one wasn't written with the other in mind, no. I believe in sex but always safe sex.

      • Skylar

        HPV can be transmitted even with the consistent use of condoms. That's why the stats are so high. It's almost impossible to avoid and most people don't get symptoms which is why we're all so unaware of it.

  • xra

    sucks dude… best prophylactic against cancer that i know of is curcumin, so either dive into that indian food hard or look into a good supplement like jarrow curcumin 95

    and of course stuff like good sleep and exercising every other day will keep the immune system up and dna replication in check, so there's no reason to think that the risk is as high as pessimistic doctors (rightly so though, i guess) will tell you it is.

  • Blue

    Thank you Kat for writing this, using your real name, and being so honest. It is HORRIFYING to have your doctor tell you that you have pre cancerous cells, that your body is basically turning against you. I too was diagnosed last winter and am awaiting the results of my first post op pap exam. And like you, I have only had a few partners all of whom were tested. I never thought… well you know. 
    And an extra special THANK YOU and hug to all the knowledgeable and sympathetic men who have commented on this article. You make me proud. 

    ps I have a medical question if it's not too personal: did you have a colposcopy and a LEEP?

  • http://www.facebook.com/wingedthing Leigh Alexander

    Very scary stuff and an important reminder to women that we're not immortal and that we need to take our sexual health seriously. Having sufferers like you who can talk about it so bravely and candidly is an inspiration and helps blow away the secrecy and shame that often leads people to avoid dealing with the issue at all.

  • freddipass

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news but we're all filled with viruses and bacteria that almost everybody has and it's only an issue if we make it one.  For example, we've all had chicken pox, so we have all had a form of herpes and yes, the antibodies still live in us from every virus we've ever had so we're all walking viruses, in more ways than one.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Crichton/632489809 James Crichton

      This isn't really “bad news” as such, just egregiously insensitive.

  • http://exitclov.tumblr.com exitclov

    Thank you for writing this. I tested positive 3 weeks ago. It was my first smear in almost two years, because I was studying abroad at the time I usually see my gyn and thought it'd be okay to skip it once, seeing as they've always come back regular. A doctor even told me so. Yeah, not so much. I still have to wait another week and a half to see her again for my coloscopy; that was the earliest I could be fit in. Ugh.

    • http://exitclov.tumblr.com exitclov

      forgot to add I'd also had all my Gardasil shots too.

  • concerned

    I hope things get better. I feel so bad for you.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2VXPKDT5ZYPBKSVYUKWCOZ4PU4 le gnome

    I have slept with one man ever. He was tested for STDs, but they do not test for HPV in men unless there are genital warts present. At the time I was infected, we had always used condoms.. always. Now I go through similar problems. There is no doubt about his faithfulness. We are still together. The reality of being diagnosed and the circus that followed was terrible. I waited to have sex, used protection, everyone had clean bill of health beforehand – and now my life and fertility are being threatened. AMAZING. I definitely think more public education needs to happen.

    And although your body might 'clear' the virus – it is still always there and can re-flare years/decades later when you are immunodeficient, like say, end of life in a nursing home. As someone who works in nursing, I see this often. How awesome, old and peeing yourself, and ohh hay genital warts/cervical cancer.

    Hang in there, as the statistics state, we are definitely not alone.

  • guest

    I'm sorry you had to go through this. It is very scary and I applaud you for your ability to come forward because I think it is important for people to discuss HPV honestly and openly. I do hope, though, people do not get terrified by HPV and thereby remain quiet about their history with it. Like many stated here, a lot of people do have one of the many strains of HPV.  HPV that has progressed is rightfully stressful, but many people view HPV as an std related to promiscuity. You can get it even when you wear a condom. Because of this, many people have the virus and for any girl who is diagnosed with this, it is important to talk to your OBGYN so he/she can dispel such myths. Relating HPV to the term “STD” or “STI” makes it tied to a negative connotation and makes it socially unacceptable to discuss unfortunately. In many cases, it's just like mono. If you are diagnosed, don't cry for hours upon end until you talk to your doctor and have a colposcopy. For anyone just diagnosed, remain calm, eat your vitamins, and exercise to build up that immune system. When I got the call, I cried and didn't know how I was ever going to be loved again. I didn't understand what it meant and how I could get it. I got it from one sexual partner, who only slept with one person besides me, and we always used condoms. Luckily, my HPV (relating to cervical cancer) disappeared in half a year and am now testing negative on the HPV test two years later. Once again, I'm sorry you've had to struggle with this… I just don't want anyone to feel so scared that they can't talk about it, find solace in others, and that they are the only one.

  • Caitlin

    i'm really happy you wrote this.
    i contracted  hpv when i was in my first year of university, i think anyway. thats usually how it works isn't it, you never really know who blessed you with that little nugget of joy. 
    it started with the psa-typical little bump, and everything changed.  
    when i found out i was in the throes of young love, with a boy who i'm about a thousand percent sure is the one for me.  he let me cry on the phone with him the day that i was given my prognosis from a nice indian doctor with cold gloves.   i called my mom to tell her what i knew.  i told her instead that i was just overworked, that my doctors appointment was about a blood test. i cried everyday for months, thought seriously about setting myself on fire, or never waking up . 
    not because of the disease,  the doctor had stressed it was very common and very treatable. 
    but the shame, the embarrassment, the possibility of never having kids. death. 
    the only person that knew was my boyfriend, as he came to grips with the reality that he very could be responsible, or, in the very least, infected as well.  he dried my eyes often, tried his hardest to make me feel pretty and worth something and not some irresponsible floozy with cauliflower growing inside of her.  
    i didn't tell a single other soul until this past october. my best friend has five sisters,  all of which are either barren, or will be before the age of thirty-five. she could handle it, i couldn't. i cried in her mothers car and she said “it happens all the time, cait, at least you've got some time.”
    i had a pap smear last month,  my doctor hasn't called me. 
    no news is good news,
    i've got all the time in the world. 
    and so do you, i swear it.

  • Tim

    Seriously impressed.

    You seem like an awesome chick. I don't know if you got my email but try me at timfraser123@hotmail:twitter.com.

    Same guy as the one who commented on your 'ex' article.

    • Tim

      What is this autocorrect bullshit?

      OK. It's timfraser123 AT hotmail.com

      One word. No twitter.

  • Pfft

    fuck. i need to get a pap smear :(

  • eferf67
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