I will never forget the day I got a call from my OB/GYN, informing me that I was HPV positive. I had a colposcopy, and fortunately, there were no signs of cancer. But my clean bill of cancer health didn’t erase the reality that I had a sexually transmitted infection.
But my OB/GYN was fantastic. She explained what was happening in easy-to-understand terminology, and she helped me take responsibility without implying that I was somehow a failure. Her approach helped me through what could have been the most frightening experience of my life.
However, I learned that some of my friends also have HPV, and that they didn’t have the same experience. Their physicians had not given them nearly as much information. Some felt scared and confused, while others felt like there was nothing to worry about at all.
Although I had told a few friends and family members about my HPV, I never planned to share it publicly. But when I discovered that my somewhat positive experience was rare, I knew it was important to discuss.
Living With HPV: To Share Or Not To Share?
As someone who is dedicated to improving public health, and who is an advocate of sharing narratives to raise awareness, I believed it was best to share my own experience.
Here are 5 things that my OB/GYN told me about my condition—things I would encourage every physician to tell a woman who is HPV positive.
1. You Have Nothing To Be Ashamed Of.
This is one of the most important things you can tell your patients. Shame is what I struggled with the most. I felt tainted, as if I had done something wrong.
Reassuring your patient doesn’t mean letting her off the hook, of course. Encouraging her to use protection empowers her to protect herself.
But reassure her that this does not define her, and remind her that she is not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost everyone who is sexually active gets HPV at some point in their lives.
Basic facts like these had a strangely calming effect—for me. Knowledge was the stabilizer that helped me keep a clear head and think logically about my next steps.
2. Yes, Tests Like Uterine Biopsies Can Be Painful.
The nurses did prepare for me for some “pressure and minor cramping,” but this is one thing I wish they had prepared me for a little more.
It’s understandable to avoid overstating potential pain, so that your patient doesn’t back out of her test. But it also doesn’t help to lie and say there will be no pain—lies can break trust and discourage her from pursuing further treatment, if needed.
Be honest about the pain, but remind her it doesn’t last long. It’s a few quick pinches, and the pain subsides almost immediately.
3. It’s Possible You Have Cancer—But You Probably Don’t.
This is another area in which honesty is critical, for two reasons:
- When a woman hears she has HPV, she might panic, immediately thinking she has cancer.
- She might believe that since HPV doesn’t always cause cancer, she doesn’t need to get tested.
Neither of these mindsets benefits a woman’s mental or physical health.
It’s worth reminding her of the following:
- Yes, HPV can cause cancer. However, the World Health Organization reports that most HPV infections clear up within a few months, and about 90% clear up within two years. It’s a small proportion that can persist and lead to cancer.
- It is extremely important to follow up after an HPV diagnosis to get a cancer screening. According to the US National Library of Medicine (NLM), most women with cervical cancer did not get regular Pap smears, or did not follow up after abnormal Pap smear results.
- Cervical cancer generally develops slowly. Researchers believe it can take between 10 and 30 years to appear, the National Cancer Institute notes.
- As NLM notes, cervical dysplasia, the precancerous condition, is 100% treatable.
All of this information is available to patients online, but sharing it with your patient ensures that she receives correct information and can make informed decisions.
4. Surprising “Stuff” Will Come Out Of You For The Next Week.
This might not seem like the most pertinent information to give your patient. However, it’s not something to ignore.
After my colposcopy, my doctor told me that I would notice something similar to coffee grounds in my urine. Had she not prepared me for that, I would have been terrified that something was wrong.
5. You Need To Tell Your Future Partners About It.
This might be the most troubling thing I’ve heard from my friends with HPV. Several of them don’t see the need to share the information since it’s so common, or since there is currently no HPV test recommended for men.
I doubt my friends understand the gravity of failing to tell a partner. Men can pass on HPV to future partners. Personally, I would never want to feel even slightly responsible for another woman getting it without her knowing that she’s taking that risk.
I don’t have a better moral compass than my friends. I attribute my desire to be honest primarily to my doctor and nurses.
They educated me about how easy it would be to pass on HPV without protection, and how my partners could pass it on to their future partners.
From a public health standpoint, that’s obviously a critical piece of information to share. I have no doubt this type of honesty has prevented many infections from occurring nationwide.
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