Coming to terms with HPV

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN

Published March 20, 2007

I felt sick.

When I heard the news, I felt the blood rush out of my head as if my heart had stopped. Now I knew why they ask people to sit down before they tell them bad news.

I sat down.

It was strange, I thought, that the nurse prefaced our phone conversation by congratulating me on testing negative for gonorrhea and Chlamydia. To me, it seemed like congratulating someone for not being in prison.

Then she dropped the bomb. She told me I had HPV. Actually, what she told me was that a laboratory found signs of a cellular abnormality that was associated with pre-cancerous lesions caused by the human papilloma virus.

Suddenly, all my years of education could not help me comprehend what that nurse had just told me.

She explained the two types of HPV. High-risk goes with cancer; low risk goes with genital warts. It was the only time in my life that I found myself actually hoping I would get cancer.

I hung up the phone feeling confused. The nurse had told me to use protection, but what was she talking about? I had an STD. I couldn't ever have sex again.

Then I thought about him, and that's when the tears started streaming down my face. He was the most perfect man I had ever met. Now, everything was ruined.

I was an emotional mess. But after the initial shock, the only thing I felt was unadulterated rage.

Like the acronym says, this disease was transmitted, and for me there was only one possible place it could have come from. If the culprit had been anywhere within my sight, I'm pretty sure I would have attempted to kill him. Of all the things in my life he had ruined, this took the cake.

Still, things didn't make sense because I was tested after him.

I set aside my murderous visions and tried to learn more about what was going on.

The nurse had said something about a cellular abnormality, but that term was vague, and the severity of the situation wasn't clear.

Knowing more is typically comforting, but try typing "HPV" into a Google image search. You'll come up with some of the most disturbing stuff on the Internet.

I stormed over to UHS demanding answers. Eventually, I got one.

When I went into the clinic nine months earlier and asked for a full STD screening, they didn't screen me for HPV. Even though HPV is the most prevalent STD in America today, they didn't test me for that because of my age.

Later that night, I called a friend who I knew wouldn't judge me and told her doctors had found abnormalities on a pap smear.

She wasn't shocked. She wasn't even surprised. She nonchalantly told me that she had been told the same thing a while back.

Soon after that, I began to realize the scope of the situation. Getting this diagnosis was like joining a secret society. I found out that most of my best friends were members, and I had never known. The woman at the check-in counter at UHS was a member too, even my OBGYN.

I started to come to terms with HPV. I thought of it more like mono and less like AIDS, and learned that symptoms rarely manifest. Usually a person's immune system will clear the virus without any treatments, which is one reason why doctors don't often screen women under 21.

That's what most of my friends said happened to them, except for one who developed cervical cancer from a really mean strain. She had to get biopsies and surgery, but she's okay now.

My friends still had sex, too. They told me how supportive their partners were when they found out, and that mine would be, too. He was.

A while later, I was sitting in a different doctor's office for a completely unrelated matter. I wanted to get another professional opinion on HPV, though, so I hesitantly began to tell the doctor that there was another issue I wanted to discuss with him.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "If you're talking about your abnormal pap, I just looked at the HPV test and saw it was negative. Congratulations."

I asked him to double-check. Then triple-check. Then I made him go back, get me the printout, and show me how negative it was.

Completely negative. The original test must have been a false positive, he said.

All my pap tests after that: negative.

I'm just now getting over the shock and pain of thinking I was living with an STD. What have I taken away from it? People need to realize it can happen to them (80 percent of the population is likely to get it by the time they're 50), but it doesn't have to. There is a vaccine that greatly reduces a person's chances of contracting HPV. I'm signed up to get it. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure I don't rejoin that silent majority.

- Arikia Milikan is a LSA Junior and Daily staff reporter