It’s no secret that Sex Ed classes in the United States lack accurate information and educational material. This often leads to high school students (including sophomore me) leaving health classes confused and scared. It is 2016 — sex shouldn’t be taboo and teenagers and young adults shouldn’t be afraid of sex. Students should be informed of all aspects of sex, the good and the bad, and abstinence should not be taught as the only form of STI and pregnancy prevention.
I promise that I have a point. I want to blame my terrible high school health class experience for the panic I felt when I realized the voicemail (still wondering why voicemails continue to exist) on my phone was from my gynecologist’s office. They hit me with the classic “no news is good news” as I left the office about a week before, so I was shocked and terrified that they called me.
The voicemail said to “call back at your earliest convenience to discuss the results of last week’s testings.” Like any responsible adult, I sat on my bed for an hour researching ways to flee the country rather than calling the office back so my mother would never have to learn her perpetually single daughter was sexually active and had chlamydia or whatever my fate happened to be. I then spent another thirty minutes deep breathing so I could gain a little self-confidence and speak to a nurse without sounding like I might burst into tears any second.
Once I was connected with a nurse and she finally spelled my last name correctly, she told me my gonorrhea and chlamydia tests came back negative.
Thank God, I thought, But why the fuck is this conversation happening, then?
“But your Pap Smear results came back abnormal,” she said, “your squamous cell count is elevated which means you tested positive for HPV.”
As someone who hasn’t gotten an A in a science class since second grade, half of that went right over my head. But I knew HPV lead to cancer, so I was automatically thinking the worst.
“Do I have cancer?” I blurted out.
My brain was racing at this point. What was the purpose of those horrible HPV shots I got in middle school? How long have I had this cancer? Who gave this to me? Is this an STI? Will I be able to have children? And this lady, as calm as they come, reassured me I would be just fine and that nurses are a true Godsend.
“Oh no, most women of reproductive age will contract HPV at least once in their lifetime. Our bodies typically fight this off like a cold, since it is a virus after all. There is nothing to worry about, your abnormal cell count is only slightly above where it should be, but we just wanted to give you this information so you remember to come back next year so we can repeat the Pap. Everything will likely be normal by then. We don’t feel a need to do any other testing right now.”
In those sixty seconds, I learned more about HPV than I did in Sex Ed. So Mindy, the nurse at my gynecologist’s office, if you’re out there reading this, you rock and I appreciate you.
So, I wanted to share everything I learned from Mindy and the CDC’s website (hours of additional research followed my conversation with the nurse) about HPV so you don’t experience this panic if you ever find yourself listening to a similar voicemail from your gynecologist’s office.
From The CDC
· There are hundreds of strands of human papillomavirus (HPV) that have been around for many years.
· HPV is the most common STI in the United States.
· Most sexually active men and women will have HPV at some point in their lives.
· HPV is NOT the same thing as HIV or HSV (Herpes).
· HPV is most commonly spread through vaginal or anal sex and can be spread when an infected individual shows no signs of symptoms. Most people experience no HPV symptoms.
· Even if you’ve only had sex once with one person, you could have HPV. HPV can take years to appear in tests like Pap smears, making it close to impossible to determine how long you’ve been infected.
· Some strands of HPV can cause cancer and genital warts. Since HPV cancers take years to develop, there is no way to tell whose HPV will develop into cancer one day.
· Some vaccines can reduce your chances of getting HPV and both boys and girls aged 11-12 should be vaccinated.
· Women ages 21-65 should have routine Pap smears to ensure HPV does not develop into cervical or other forms of cancer.
· Adults and teenagers should use condoms during sexual activity to lower their chances of getting HPV, but should keep in mind that condoms cannot always prevent this STI.
· 14 million people become infected with HPV each year.
· There is no treatment for HPV, but since this is a virus, your body can typically fight it off (think of colds). There are treatments for genital warts, cervical cancer, and other HPV-related cancers.
I’m sad to say that of all the information listed above, I only knew about the HPV vaccine, and the same goes for all of my friends I texted to calm myself down after that dreadful phone call. I would have laughed if someone told me HPV was basically as common as a cold a few weeks ago. I’m not sure about you, but I think these are the things we should be taught in Sex Ed. Knowing this would have prevented so much stress over a voicemail and I hope this information saves you from the panic I felt that day. Now get back out there and continue having (safe) sex!.
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