Our Dirty Little Secret: Talking About HPV

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By now, you’ve probably all seen the advertisements. “One Less” is the slogan, and it’s spoken by numerous women of all ages pledging to do their part to help prevent cervical cancer. The ad campaign is being run in support of the new vaccine GARDASIL. According to the company’s Web site, the drug is effective against strains 6, 11, 16, and 18 of the human papilloma virus, the strains most likely to cause cervical cancer and genital warts.


Unless you or someone close to you has been diagnosed with HPV, you’ve probably never even heard of the virus or its connection to cervical cancer before this. The commercials for GARDASIL even make a point of this lack of knowledge, with some of their characters saying things like: “A virus that causes cervical cancer? Who knew?” Many women are still ignorant that such a virus even exists, in part because the virus is a silent one. Most men are symptomless and are only carriers of the virus, and many women also display no symptoms and only become aware that they’re infected through an abnormal Pap smear.


This lack of awareness is a problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women will contract some form of HPV within their lives, and by age fifty, 80 percent of women will have acquired it. Certain strains of HPV can lead to cervical cancer. This means that someone can, in a roundabout way, give you cancer. Which, to me, as a writer, is a monstrously intriguing idea. One that offers a wealth of possibilities for a story of revenge, or a death-warped love story. But it’s also an idea that, as a woman, makes me frightened. Makes me furious. Makes me, in all honesty, completely pissed-off petrified.


I have HPV, and I knew nothing about the virus until I had an abnormal Pap test. This led to the discovery of possible early cervical cancer found during a colposcopy, a necessary but incredibly invasive and somewhat painful procedure where tissue samples are taken for examination. After my colposcopy, I was left shaken and drained. I felt emotionally raw, like someone had just torn the skin from my body and left my insides bared to the elements. Every laugh from somebody else hurt, every smile, every possible bad look from circlers in the parking lot caused me to cringe.


The problem was not the procedure itself, but the stigma that I thought came with HPV. Here I was, with the beginnings of the most intimate sort of cancer, and there was no one with whom I could share the ordeal. My boyfriend wasn’t around, and I felt too ashamed to talk to my girlfriends about the problem. After all, it was partially my fault, wasn’t it? I got HPV from sex and I had convinced myself I somewhat deserved the virus for not being careful enough. I didn’t want them to think I was dirty. HPV is the good girl’s disease. Women who have done everything right, who have had only one sexual partner, women who come from any and every class, get it. And, like the subject of a failing bank account at a dinner party, no one wants to talk about it.


I went through the next three months like this, ashamed and terrified, and just waiting for the next Pap smear to see if my cells had righted themselves or if they had grown into full-blown cancer. Then, one girl’s night after a few glasses of red wine, I grew brave enough to raise the topic with my friends and was surprised to find how many of them had gone through similar experiences. Almost half of them had had their own abnormal Pap scares and one had even had a colposcopy. With our blinders off and the wine lubricating our conversation, I came to shed some of the worry that had haunted me over the last few months and understood just how important this support system was. 


Because no matter how effective or embraced this new vaccine is (that will only be told through time) I am thankful for the drug’s commercials. It’s sad that we women have been silent for so long on this matter, and it’s shameful that it takes a drug company to get us talking. HPV is a virus that exclusively (at least physically) hurts women. We women, then, must be responsible for finding the voice that both sounds an alarm and soothes the infected. Hopefully, these ads are a start, and perhaps they, coupled with a new understanding of the issue, will open up the mouths of women who are suffering and the ears of the others, their sisters.

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