I was sitting at my desk when I got the call.
Fuck, I thought. Any call from a doctor’s office is the wrong kind of call to be receiving on a Monday afternoon. I swallowed my nerves, pretended I had to pee, and picked up the phone. “Everything’s normal,” my gynecologist said. “Except, your Pap smear results are irregular. It looks like you have HPV.”
I was flabbergasted. HPV? I have a Jewish mother neurotic enough to have ensured I received an HPV vaccine years ago! And, although it’d been a fairly promiscuous autumn, I always practice safe sex.
“Don’t worry,” my gynecologist continued, “most people get it HPV at some point in their lives. It’s pretty much the tax you pay for being a sexually active adult. You don’t have to divulge anything to sexual partners.”
HPV might be common, but having a condition linked to cancer is painstaking news for your everyday hypochondriac. If you have HPV and you’re as confused and scared as what I was, you probably have some questions. Allow me to answer them for you!
Question 1: Do I have cancer?
- [Image description: An ivy going into a woman’s hand at the hospital.] Via unspash
Probably not! At least, not yet. Although HPV is thought to be responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers, the CDC estimates that about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers, and more than 60% of penile cancers, if you’ve been tested and your pap came back irregular, you do not have cancer. Repeat: you do not have cancer.
What you have are some irregular cells that, left untreated, could eventually lead to cancer. That’s why it’s so important to be screened yearly.
Question 2: Now what do I do?
- [Image description: A lab testing some results.] Via unplash
The protocol for preventing cervical cancer depends on your age. If you’re under twenty-five, the doctor will most likely repeat testing in a year to monitor the irregular cells. If the pap comes back to reveal LSIL (low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion), which could be considered the next step up in seriousness, you may have to return for another test in six months. No biggie.
If your pap comes back as HSIL (high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion), the next step would most likely be a colposcopy, followed by a biopsy if necessary. This is to thoroughly screen for precancerous and cancerous cells your doctor would treat with surgery if necessary.
Unfortunately that’s really all you can do.
Question 3: What’s the deal with penises?
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You might have heard that you can only have HPV if you have a cervix. This isn’t true.
If you have a penis, you can absolutely get it, carry it, and transmit it. Not only that, but it can, albeit rarely, lead to cancers of the penis, anus, and oropharynx. The twist is, there is no test currently available to screen for HPV for those who have penises.
Question 4: Can I get HPV if I’ve had the vaccine?
- [Image description: A doctor looking at some results.] Via unsplash
Unfortunately, the vaccine only protects against certain strains of the virus. Thankfully, those strains are HPV 16 and 18, the deadliest forms of HPV.
It’s still worth getting the vaccine – but do it when you’re young. Doctors stop recommending the HPV vaccine to women once they’ve reached their mid 20s. Gardasil is FDA-approved only through age 26, with the thinking that by that time folks have had enough sex that they’re probably already exposed to the virus and won’t reap the benefits.You can still get HPV if you've had the vaccine, because the vaccine only protects against certain strains of the virus. Thankfully, those strains are the deadliest forms of HPV. Click To Tweet
Question 5: Do I have to tell my partner?
- [Image description: A man and a woman sitting together at a cafe.] Via unsplash
Due to my doctor’s original advice that fateful day in January, I have not told all my sexual partners that I have HPV. After all, they probably already have it. However, most of the time, surprise sexcapade aside, I did divulge the information, figuring the truth is important, especially when it comes to your health.
Admitting I had a sexually transmitted disease didn’t feel great in the moment, but I was happily surprised to find that most of the guys dated were already pretty clued-up on STIs.
Before my current partner and I had sex, we made sure to do our research. We talked to our respective doctors and together, through open and honest communication, settled on a game plan.
My advice? Talk to your partners, people! It’s only fair to provide them with facts, and when push comes to shove, HPV is not a deal breaker.
Finding out you have HPV can be scary, but once you understand the facts and do some research, you’ll feel more at ease. Arming yourself with knowledge – whether you have it or not – is always a good idea when it comes to sexual health.