HPV? Not me! A Call to End the Stigma

So today’s blog post is going to be of a “sensitive” nature, and I’m bound to scandalize someone by posting about this. However, in a blog dedicated to discussing predominantly  young adult cancer issues, sex is bound to come up. And what better time than the day before the “sexiest” of all holidays — Valentine’s Day!
Over the past few years, several people I know were diagnosed with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that has been linked to several forms of cancer. The first moral of today’s post is that anyone can have HPV. Many women (and men for that matter) who acquire HPV are educated, successful and non-promiscuous. Many acquire it from their spouses, and some may even be virgins since the virus is spread through skin to skin contact. In recent years, HPV has gained some attention due to the development of the HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix.
Coincidentally, one of the reasons researchers have been able to link HPV to cervical and other cancers is because of the HeLa cells, which I discussed in my post about Henrietta Lacks in November. Henrietta was a 31-year-old young wife and mother when she passed away from HPV-related cervical cancer in the 1950s.  Because of the cells extracted from her cervix, researchers have been able to develop these vaccines to protect men and women against certain forms of HPV, including the four that are most often linked to cervical cancer. However,  it does not protect against many strains that do not cause cancer but have their own negative set of side effects. Also, there are several other strains that HAVE been linked to cancer that the vaccine DOES NOT protect against. In fact, the majority of people I know who have since been diagnosed with HPV, received the Gardasil vaccine beforehand.
A very kind, anonymous guest blogger reluctantly agreed to write this post for me about her first hand experience with an aggressive form of HPV. Her story has a happy ending because she was very punctual about going for her annual pap smear appointment. Which leads me to the second moral of this post, which is to please please please go to your annual check-ups. I hear/read stories every day from cancer survivors about how if they had waited a few more weeks to get their yearly cholesterol check/mammogram/pap smear/etc. done, they might not be alive today. Please don’t put it off. Make the sacrifices necessary to go to the doctor once a year. Many services exist to help people get these screenings done for free as well. I really hope people read this with an open mind and are able to learn something from this.

HPV? Not me!

A Call to End the Stigma

 Nearly 75 to 80% of sexually-active adults will be infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime. HPV has become an epidemic across the United States. Yet there is still little discussion about this pervasive virus. HPV is a virus that affects both women and men. If left untreated, HPV can lead to several different types of cancers, not just cervical cancer. The stigma must end. Women and men need to come together to fight this terrible virus and to prevent others from suffering and coping alone.

 When I was diagnosed with HPV, I remember feeling shocked and scared. I was diagnosed with high-grade cervical dysplasia, CIN III, the last precancerous stage before the cells become cancerous. At this stage, the cells must be destroyed to avoid turning over to cervical cancer. I struggled with the news, yet I felt uncomfortable confiding in anyone. Not even family and friends. Before I received this news, I felt invincible. I had always taken excellent care of my body, eaten healthy and exercised regularly. I also had received the Gardasil vaccine. What is most frightening about HPV is the fact that most strands of HPV, including the most aggressive strands, exhibit no symptoms. In fact, in 90% of patients, HPV will clear away on its own without any symptoms. In most cases, HPV can only be detected through regular pap smears. For me, it had only been a year since my last pap smear, but the HPV had already advanced to a stage that typically could take years to reach.

 I learned about the virus in the time I coped with the news. For me, research helped me feel informed and more comfortable with facing the treatment. To help spread awareness and to dispel myths, here are some answers to commonly asked questions about HPV.

 How is HPV transferred?

HPV is transferred by skin-to-skin contact. HPV is very contagious and can spread even without the actual physical act of sexual intercourse. It is possible for HPV to be transferred even if a condom is used. When it comes to HPV, the only “safe sex” is no skin-to-skin contact.

 How does HPV affect the cervix?

 HPV can cause normal cells on the cervix to turn abnormal. In most cases, the body will fight off HPV and the cells will go back to normal. But in some cases, the body is incapable of fighting off HPV, and these cells can become cancerous. It often takes years for cancer to develop.

 How long can a person be infected with HPV?

 A person can be infected with HPV for up to 10 years. Of course, during this time, the person may or may not know they carry the virus.

 What cancers can be caused by HPV?

 The most commonly known cancer that is associated with HPV is cervical cancer. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. However, according the CDC, the following cancers are also associated with HPV: 90% of anal cancers, 65% of vaginal cancers, 50% of vulvar cancers and 35% of penile cancers. A recent study also found that about 60% of oral cancers are linked to HPV.

 Demand an annual pap smear!

 An annual pap smear is the best way to protect against HPV-associated cancers. When HPV is detected early, doctors will work with you and monitor the virus to ensure it does not progress to cancer. Even if you are in a monogamous relationship, you can still be exposed to HPV because it can remain inactive in the body for up to 10 years.

 I share my story in an effort to spread awareness and to help end the stigma associated with HPV. HPV is about as common as the flu. Americans need to be more comfortable telling a sexual partner that they are infected with the virus, which can in turn, help prevent spreading the virus to others. Awareness can save lives. The problem with HPV is that too many people, especially men, do not know they carry the disease and can easily pass it on to others.

 An end to the stigma will also foster support groups for women and men struggling with the virus. Women and men facing aggressive forms of HPV should not have to turn to the Internet for support. When I finally confided in a few friends, it turned out that many of them also had HPV or had a friend or family member who had fought the virus. The treatments and surgical procedures for HPV can be very frightening and invasive. If you know someone struggling, reach out to them. Be supportive. Ending the stigma is the first step toward ending this public health crisis in the United States.  


One thought on “HPV? Not me! A Call to End the Stigma

  1. Thank God. People need to stop being shy about this. It is far too prevalent and far too dangerous to keep under wraps. Thank you Laura and your friend for writing this. Shared.

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