Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States — most sexually active men and women will likely get at least one type of HPV in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — yet women still often feel stigmatized, scared, and confused by its diagnosis. The CDC estimates approximately 79 million Americans currently have HPV, and about 14 million people become newly infected each year.
Here, nine women talk about their experiences.
I was diagnosed with HPV my senior year of college. The doctor said there were "pre-cancerous" cells. The mention of cancer to a 21-year-old is enough to scare you into pretty much whatever treatment the doctor suggests, so I had a colposcopy for further examination, and ultimately, cryotherapy, a very uncomfortable procedure where the cells are frozen. All gone, right?
A few months later I got a follow-up exam that again revealed abnormal cells. This doctor, an older male, said he was surprised that the previous doctor had me undergo cryotherapy. He said that was "outdated medicine" and assured me that HPV was nothing to worry about because "everyone in your age group has it." He basically sent me on my way and said it would clear up on its own. So, I'm still unsure as to whether I have it, and still mildly scared and uneducated as to whether I will be able to have kids when the time comes.
I've had HPV for...two years? I think? It's something I completely forget about until someone mentions it in conversation — like after they talked about it on Girls — and then I can't help but feel weird about it. Which is ridiculous, and I shouldn't be embarrassed, but there are times when the knowledge that I have it makes me feel unclean in some way.
Also, my mom cried when I told her, which didn't help matters AT ALL.
I was diagnosed with HPV at the age of 15 after the first time I had sex. I had a wart on my cervix that needed removal and then a biopsy. My gyno was a man — and terrible — who basically told me that I would never be able to have sex again. It was humiliating and traumatizing and I was incredibly depressed. That was probably 1999. What is known about HPV has come a long, long way since then. After several years of biannual clean Pap smears, I was told there was zero trace of it (now back to once a year, still good). It's been comforting to know as I've gotten older that I was not the only one to go through this, and that I have been able to have sex again. I learned that there are lots of different strains and even got the vaccine (which doesn't protect you against all strains, but was still a good thing to do).
I just want people to know it's not something to be ashamed of, and your life is very, very much not over.
My senior year of college I went in for my regular Pap. A week or so later I got a call. I had HPV, the kind that could give you cervical cancer. I had to make appointments for an invasive procedure to test cervical cells. I freaked out. I felt dirty, ashamed. I had only had sex with a few partners, all of whom were my boyfriends, and, yet, somehow I felt like a slut. Well, a day or two later I got another call: They read the chart wrong. I did have HPV, but not the cervical cancer kind. The kind that requires you to just get two Pap smears a year instead of the one, just to keep track of it. It had no symptoms and basically just existed. If this had been the initial result, I would've felt terrible. But after the scare of the first one, it felt like NBD.
Fast-forward four-plus years and I am on vacation with my boyfriend of about eight months. I haven't had an abnormal Pap smear since the first one. I have asked my gyno whether I needed to share this information with sexual partners and was told it wasn't necessary. Well, I did. It came up in conversation and I felt like I had to tell him. And he lost his shit. I was in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica and the boyfriend that had led me there was fuming. He felt betrayed, he said. That slut feeling came back. The shame. The dirty feeling. It didn't matter that this was one of the most common conditions out there for sexually active women or that I didn't even seem to have it anymore. I was honestly worried I would have to find my way home by myself. It was very scary.
Epilogue: He "forgave" me. It took me another three years to realize what a selfish jerk he was. I finally did and life has been swell ever since. I never had another abnormal Pap again.
When the HPV vaccine came out, I asked my gynecologist if I should get it. Her response was, "You're fine, that's only for promiscuous girls." Ummm...what? Anyway, I should've THEN changed doctors, but I didn't, and I did not get the shot. Years later, I came to find out that I had HPV and needed to get a colposcopy. Throughout the whole process — from the abnormal Pap to the procedure to the results — I was freaking out, mainly because I realized I don't know enough about HPV and also because I knew my mom would not have all the info I needed to hear, like she did with other feminine issues, since she never went through it. Two normal Paps later, I'm still a little bit on edge and terrified to hear "abnormal results" once again. The more I talk about it, the more I realize it's more common than I thought it was, and the more I realize my experience has been the same experience many have had — and it's helped me chill out a little.
Last year a close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. She's only in her thirties, and it was a big wake-up call that we're not as infallible as we all think we are. I hadn't been to the gyno in a while, so I made an appointment and got my first Pap smear in a long time. It came up abnormal, and of course I freaked. I freaked double when I found out that I'd have to have a colposcopy to determine the extent of the abnormality. My doctor, though, was very patient in explaining the procedure, and prescribed very strong painkillers, which were a lifesaver. After the colposcopy (which is where they snip off a piece of your cervix for biopsy), I actually went shopping for jeans. It turned out that thanks to HPV, I had some cancerous cells and needed to have them frozen off. I went through the procedure and am fine now, though I will need to have Pap smears every six months to make sure the cells don't grow back.
All of this was really scary, but would have been a lot worse if it weren't for the fact that tons of my friends had gone through the exact same thing. For some reason, having HPV, having abnormal Pap smears, and having cancerous cervical cells just isn't something that women tend to talk about. I wish it was, because it happens a whole hell of a lot more than you'd think. HPV is super, super common, and women should talk about it because we need to feel empowered and good about our reproductive health, and we need to be honest with ourselves and each other when we're going through scary stuff.
For the past three years or so, my Paps have been irregular. The even trickier part is that they're irregular in their irregularity (say that five times fast) — they flip-flop between normal and not, unscary and scary-but-how-much? It's enough that I have to go to the gynecologist every six months instead of every year, but not enough that any further steps have been taken.
And so I do what I usually do with silences, which is fill them in. I'm a huge worrier, able to take the tiniest grain of alarm and turn it into a massive snowball of everything that could go wrong: What if I have cancer and nobody can see it, what if I can never have kids, what if what if what if? I thought I'd done everything right. I always use condoms and I got the Gardasil shots years ago, but, as every kind-faced doctor who's ever opened a speculum in my presence likes to remind me, the numbers are still so high.
The one thing I've learned to do with my worry is to bring it into the light, to talk about it with other folks. Once it's out of my head it's easier to see it for what it is: small and shapeless, something that seemingly every woman I know has contended with in some form or another. A friend recently told me that she was scared to death about hers, newly discovered. When I told her not to get nervous, I'm sure it'll all be fine, this happens to everyone, I believed it too.
I am not a person who's had a lot of partners, so when I was diagnosed with the cervical cancer-related variety, despite having gotten all my Gardasil, I was pretty sure God was smiting me. There were only three people who could've given it to me, assuming I didn't pick it up from a public toilet or something: my ex who had cheated on me, the manwhore I rebounded with, or my vacation fling. I asked my doctor whether I needed to let them know, and her professional opinion was that it was akin to sitting someone down to tell them you'd had the flu and might've passed it to them. Needless to say, I kept my mouth shut. Took a couple years to get a normal Pap again, but I'm in the clear now.
I was diagnosed with HPV a little over three years ago. I know a handful of women who have had it, and was aware that it typically leaves the body after a year or two, but worst-case-scenario thoughts flooded my brain for the first few months after my diagnosis. Now the worries consume me in fleeting spurts — Am I going to get cancer and die young? Is it definitely going to go away? What if it NEVER goes away? Are people going to judge me? How do I tell my partner? DO I need to tell my partner? — followed by long stretches of time during which I almost completely forget I even have it.
I was diagnosed following two very long-term relationships, so added to the stress of dating in my late twenties/early thirties was the issue of whether or not to disclose having HPV to my partners. If it comes up in conversation, I have no qualms talking about it. And for the most part, guys have shrugged it off as no big deal — two even beat me to it, telling me before we were intimate that they had recently been with someone with HPV (I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a precoital "we're in the HPV club!" high five involved) — with the exception of one, who was a little concerned at first, but then did some research and realized it wasn't anything worth majorly freaking out about on his end.
The asymptomatic strain I have puts me at a high risk for cervical cancer, but two colposcopies and multiple Paps later, two separate gynos have assured me that I shouldn't be too concerned, as there hasn't been any significant cervical dysplasia; I just need to get a Pap every six months to keep on top of it. There's definitely an anxiety about developing cervical cancer that creeps into the back of my mind every so often, but knowing that I'm monitoring my cervix regularly makes me feel a bit more at ease that if something awful did happen, I'd be able to catch and treat it before it was too late.