9 Women On Getting An HPV Diagnosis After Their First Cervical Cancer Screening

HPV can be scary. When I first got diagnosed at 25, after my first cervical cancer screening (or smear, as some people call them), I didn’t know who to talk to about it and I was ashamed. There’s no way of knowing how and when HPV is contracted — I could have got it from a regular partner, a safe fleeting interaction using a condom, or even from just being fingered while still a “virgin”, as problematic as that word is. Anyone can get it from any sexual interaction. In fact, it’s worth knowing that eight in 10 people will get HPV at least once in their lives, and in most cases the body clears it on its own. However, it’s always important to be on top of your cervical health. 
Screening uptake has been low for some years. NHS England found three in 10 people eligible don’t go for their screening, even though this is the only way to know if you have HPV. Fears around discomfort during the screening and access issues are regularly cited as reasons people don’t go, despite it being potentially life-saving. It’s not all bad news though — a report shared by Public Health Scotland found no cases of cervical cancer have been detected in the first cohort of women given the HPV vaccine in Scotland in 2008. It was initially brought in just for girls aged 12 to 13 and only provided protection for selected strains. Now, boys can also access the vaccine and more strains are included in it. Though the data is a tad premature, as most of these women will be around 31 years old, it’s promising, and suggests if there are any future cases, the figures will be low. This doesn’t mean we can be lax about attending screenings though. 
Dr Aziza Sesay, an expert in HPV and gynaecology, who works with the Eve Appeal, says the NHS hopes to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040 — but we aren’t there yet. “The HPV vaccine is amazing and so far it has been said to be 90% effective and its protection lasts at least 10 years, but it doesn’t cover all of the strains of HPV,” she says. “It’s still very important to attend regular cervical screening appointments when invited. Though the individual risk is much lower compared to not having the vaccine at all, the risk is not completely eliminated.”
Dr Sesay stresses it “can be picked up from the very first sexual encounter, regardless of gender or sexual orientation and it does not have to involve penetrative sex.” It’s often pinned as the “female infection”, as men aren’t tested for it even though they get it too. Last year, a survey by YouGov for the Eve Appeal found that only 5% of people have a good understanding of HPV. “If only 5% have a good understanding about HPV, it’s no wonder they would be quite worried or confused when receiving this diagnosis,” Dr Sesay adds. “This coupled with all the stigma, taboo and misinformation surrounding HPV, exacerbates these emotions.” Some people also worry about disclosing to any partners, but unlike other sexually transmitted viruses, you don’t have to share your HPV status — it’s up to you.
Now, being educated on the subject myself, I know much better than to feel any shame about my past sexual choices. Still, it often takes a lot of self education to get the reassurance that’s needed when faced with a letter that says you have HPV — this has been my experience, along with several R29 readers who are ready to share their stories with you. The more we talk, the better chance we have of removing the stigma around this common, genderless virus.
If you’ve been recently diagnosed and want to know more, Dr Sesay recommends using the free helplines for information from experts that are run by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and the Eve Appeal. The details can be found on their websites.

*Names have been changed to protect identities. 

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