A friend posted on Facebook today a letter from NHS inviting her to a cervical screening, which now includes a test for HPV, which prompted me to write this blog post.
I can’t remember where I first heard of HIV. Probably in a propaganda documentary about the evil Western society and all the horrors it brought upon itself: drug addiction, homelessness, criminality, disease. In a Romanian society that was just finding its feet out of communism and into the Western society in question, I can’t recall having sexual education classes. I’m pretty sure that most of my knowledge had been acquired via teenage magazines, and thank God for that or I wouldn’t have known my vagina from my elbow when I had my first intimate encounter at the ripe age of twenty.
Like many young women, I struggled with how I felt about my sexuality. Was it something to rejoice and enjoy? Was a voluptuous approach with multiple partners something to embrace? Or was it something to be ashamed of? I couldn’t make up my mind. I felt a bit of everything during my years of self-discovery. My moments of sexual freedom were followed by a lot of self-doubt and body shame, a lot of afterthought and regret. I even went through a full year of sexual abstinence. My occasional moments of carelessness, followed by obsessive fears of being punished for my debauchery, which always came in the form of having contracted HIV.
I didn’t even worry about cervical cancer until the publicised death of Jade Goody, a woman younger than myself. My regular smear tests always came back normal and the thought of testing myself for HPV didn’t even cross my mind. Until one day when a doctor in Romania suggested I should find out. When the results came back positive I was in shock.
How was it possible that I had dodged the fearsome HIV and got myself HPV-infected? I felt like a stigmata. Just like the evil Western society of my childhood, I had brought it upon myself. Had I not been so sexually active, I could have avoided this. I wanted to talk about it with other people but I was ashamed and afraid of what else I would discover about it. A harmless google search came back with scenarios of death and doom. I experienced panic attacks. I cried. I saw another doctor in Romania who told me I had a wound on my cervix and gave me five years to live if I didn’t get a cervical conisation. I got a second opinion and a topical treatment. Soon HPV became my new obsession.
I shared my worries with friends and family. I found out that friends had it too. That a close relative of mine contracted it from her only partner. That it is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives. That only a few of the strains carry the risk for cancer. That I had one of those strains.
HPV is such a sensitive issue for women because it is related to their already repressed or guilt-tripped sexuality and I am glad to see that the NHS is taking additional steps in tackling the risk of cervical cancer, such as testing for HPV as part of the regular screening. That young girls can now be vaccinated against the risk strains. That it is slowly downgraded from being such a dark secret. But more conversation is needed. If, like me, you felt alone and disadvantaged in your experience, I think it’s important to talk about it. I think it’s important to stop being ashamed of it. I think it’s important that we learn how to live with it, without hard feelings. I think it is important that we all talk about it and, in the process, we heal this dark corner of our body.
I, for one, am still obsessed with HPV. But I am now undergoing yearly smear tests and colposcopies. Abnormal cells have become the normal. I’ve learnt to live with it. And the more I know about it, the more I can stay healthy. What about you?