Sitting in a chair wearing a paper-thin, pastel pink garment at a women’s clinic in Lynchburg, Virginia, a female doctor greets me with a smile. I’m there for my annual check-up, and as my second pelvic examination in almost a year, I’m not nervous. I’m familiar with how this goes. I’ll spread my knees apart and she’ll touch on my lower stomach and perform a Pap smear. At the end, she’ll tell me, “If I don’t call you in two weeks, then you have nothing to worry about.” And then I’ll go on with my life until 365 days later when I have to do it all over again.
Except, 14 days past and I did receive a call.
“You have HPV,” my gynecologist tells me, as I process unsurely what this scary human papillomavirus might be.
My mind then wanders to when I was 13 years old and had three HPV shots injected into my arms.
“How can I have HPV,” I asked myself.
On the outside, I kept a controlled demeanour, but inside, I couldn’t bear the news. When home, I cried for 48 hours. Everything I had planned for my future seemed to disappear. I called near and dear friends to tell them the news, and most of them, Latina like myself, didn’t know what to say.
No one, besides my doctor, had an understanding of HPV, but she explained it so poorly to me that I came to the conclusion that I had cancer.
At 23 years old, I was living with a fatal disease — or so I thought.
After my diagnosis, I researched everything there is to know about HPV. The problem was there was barely any information that explained what the virus is in terms that didn’t make it seem like those with it will die.
It wasn’t until I reached out to health experts one-on-one that I got the facts, and was able to calm down a bit.
“An enormous amount of women have HPV. The numbers are becoming staggeringly high. In the United States, about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year,” Martin Kast, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southern California, told me.
In fact, HPV is the most common STI, with 79 million people in the U.S., most of them in their teens and early 20s, living with the virus. The STI affects people differently, too. For most, the HPV will go away on its own, causing no health problems at all. But others may need vaccines in order to prevent health problems like genital warts and cancer.
(Photo Credit: Magali Gauthier)
As Latinas, who don’t often talk about STIs — or sexuality for that matter — it’s crucial that we are aware of and understand HPV — because we are dominantly impacted by it.
While no race or ethnicity is immune to HPV, it’s more likely for the virus to lead to cervical cancer in Latinas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, we have the highest rate of this form of cancer, and it is almost always contributed by HPV. This is because Latinas often lack access to routine Pap smear screenings, preventing them from catching the virus, receiving treatment and lowering the chances of it leading to cervical cancer.
While these statistics made it frighteningly clear that I wasn’t the only Latina with this diagnosis, I still felt alone. Seeking solidarity, I commented on a Latina Facebook group about HPV and soon received messages from real-life women living with this virus like me. They were in their late 20s and early 30s, most did not receive the HPV vaccine and many still had not told their families.
I understand them. I, too, want to hide — but if I do, I won’t get the help that I need and I can’t empower my sisters to seek the care they require, either.
This is why I’m sharing my story.
Alyssa Eily, former oncology regulatory analyst with the University of Miami and Cedars Sinai Medical Center, recommends women to not let their fear stop them from visiting their gynecologist and to do their annual examination to prevent this kind of virus from developing into a worse case.
“Patients should have control of their health care. Doctors and health care providers will use medical jargon, which is intimidating, but don’t be afraid to ask those stupid questions,” Eily told me. “Women can feel stigmatized by not only people, but also by their physician. This is a really common virus, regardless of vaccination, that no one talks about and we should be honest in discussing this topic.”
Don’t accept shame, and don’t set an expiration date on your life.
Your diagnosis is not your end.
You, like me, will fight this virus and spread awareness about it to our sisters.
Visit UptoDate to stay informed about HPV and to ask your doctor the right questions the next time you see them.