A year ago my pap smear came back abnormal. I panicked. For those who don’t know, an abnormal pap smear can indicate the beginning of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is usually caused by HPV, a sexually transmitted infection. Me? With an STD?? I’M SO CAREFUL!!! After I panicked, I cried. Then I started doing research. Here’s what I learned.
An abnormal pap smear means the cells growing on the surface of your cervix are growing in a way that is abnormal. I had an LSIL – a low grade squamous intraepithelial lesion.
Low grade: not super serious
Squamous: the name of a type of cell
Intraepithelial: a word to describe where the cell is located, in this case the surface level
Lesion: injury or wound
Dysplasia: a word to describe abnormal cell growth
As far as abnormal paps go, an LSIL is the best kind. It can be caused by HPV, but not always. It just means the cells are irritated. In many cases, your body will calm itself down and the LSIL will go away.
I knew from grade school sex ed that HPV causes two things: cancer and warts. Here’s what they didn’t teach us about human papillomavirus.
- Almost everyone has it. It’s a virus and can lie dormant. It’s a sneaky bugger. My friend Bina got it after sleeping with one person, one time – and they used protection.
- There are over 100 different strains of human papillomavirus. The strains that cause warts are completely different from the strains that cause cancer. When they test women, they are only testing for the strains that are considered high-risk for causing cervical cancer. So when you test negative for HPV, it doesn’t mean you don’t have it. It just means you tested negative for a high-risk cancer-causing strain.
- Like any virus, HPV comes and goes. A lot of times, your body does its thing and the virus goes away.
Last year, when I got my abnormal pap, I tested negative for HPV (meaning I tested negative for any of the high-risk strains). I could have left it at that. But I didn’t. Both my doctor and I are pretty hardcore activists for women’s health. We wanted to go in. So I paid $40 (because my insurance doesn’t cover it) and signed up for a colposcopy. A fancy way to say, my physician biopsy’d my cervix. She cut my cervix to see how deep and far the abnormal growth extended. Two weeks later, I got my results. The dysplasia was mild. I had tested negative for HPV. Now there was nothing to do but wait until the next year, for my next pap smear.
That happened two weeks ago. I got my results today. Abnormal pap and I tested positive for a strain of high-risk HPV. Like I said, sneaky bugger. Coulda been there last year and just didn’t show up on the test. I made an appointment immediately and my doctor colpo’d me this afternoon. It was a little nerve-wracking, just like last year. I played my favorite distraction song (Truffle Butter) and my doctor talked me through every step. At multiple points through the colpo, she put her hand on my leg and told me I was doing great. That really calmed me down. I forgot how good touch can feel when you feel scared.
We’ll get the results in a couple weeks, but we’re moving forward with the next step. In a month, I’ll be having cervical cryotherapy. My physician will freeze the parts of my cervix that have abnormal growth. The abnormal cells will die as well as any HPV in that area. It is a way of hopefully nipping things in the bud. My roommate offered to come with me…because she’s awesome.
For women, there are so many systemic limitations on our access to healthcare. Too much for me to write about in this moment. The reason I am writing is because last year I was scared. I felt ashamed and confused and unclear. As is so often the case, once I started talking, I discovered that so many of my friends had had experiences similar to mine.