Shining A Crucial Light On Cervical Health Awareness

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By Cece Flores

With January coming to a close, you may have seen some stuff about Cervical Health Awareness Month. This is a topic that I think could use a larger spotlight, in part because I was hit with this awareness at a point where it was kind of too late.

I feel like we don’t receive enough (or proper) education about our reproductive health growing up, whether that be at home or at school. In many cases that leads to a lot of us making less informed and potentially dangerous decisions with our bodies. Finding myself in the same boat as a large number of people, but feeling like I was about to fall overboard and drown due to the near radio silence on the topic, made me extremely anxious for months. This was not a thing I could find a way to talk openly about without receiving some perhaps well meaning but overly critical feedback. That made it feel so much worse.

Early last year I started experiencing some strange symptoms, namely constant pelvic pain and bumps around my genital area. They were tiny, painless bumps that sort of resembled ingrown hairs. I decided that I was experiencing really bad premenstrual cramps, since I’d recently gone off birth control, and that I should probably learn to shave better. About three months later I had an appointment with my doctor. She didn’t seem too concerned about the bumps. I was due for a Pap smear so we did one and I went home to continue my denial. It didn’t last very long.

A few weeks later I got a call from her saying that I had to come in for an emergency appointment, that something odd had come up on my Pap smear. At this point, I didn’t get nervous. I thought we’d just redo it and she’d see that everything was fine. So I went in there like it was any other Tuesday, completely unaware that it was a day that would change a lot for me. The following day my doctor called me again, her tone was serious and she asked me come in again. When I arrived at her office I noticed the absence of her regular warmth. She barely even smiled at me. Now I was nervous.

She asked me a series of questions about my then relationship, my past sexual relationships and the symptoms I’d been experiencing. She seemed disappointed that she hadn’t realized the bumps I pointed out could be an issue. Then she said the thing that made me understand what her sudden ominous demeanor was about: my Pap smear showed abnormal cervical cell growth and I would need to do more tests. She explained the tests but I dissociated when she mentioned the word cancer. I don’t remember a single thing she said after that. She filled out a series of paperwork that I was to bring to a cancer research hospital and sent me on my way.

I barely slept in the days preceding my appointment at the hospital. I did the things you’re not supposed to do; Googled the diseases, YouTubed the procedures, filled myself with unnecessary fear. Fear makes sense when dealing with the unknown but adding to it makes no real difference. By the morning of my procedure I was too aware of exactly what was going to be poked at and cut out, and let’s just say it didn’t really help to have learned about it directly before having it happen.

There are a few tests that can be done at this stage. They’re called colposcopy, where an instrument called a colposcope is inserted to closely examine the cervix. Then a biopsy can be done. In this doctor’s office, the procedure was being broadcast on a giant screen to my right which I avoided looking at until he forced me to look as he was removing a piece of tissue with something resembling a hole puncher. If you get queasy at the sight of blood or a piece of your flesh being punched out of your body, I would recommend not looking. I’m not sure why he did that to me but it made the experience a bit traumatic. Some doctors will offer medication for nerves. I suggest informing yourself about this option if you think you’ll need it.

Another slightly more invasive type of biopsy that can be done is called a LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure), or cone biopsy, in which a heated wire loop, scalpel or laser is used to remove a cone-shaped piece of tissue. This removes the outer part of the cervix and part of the endocervical canal (the path between the uterus and vagina) and can be used both to diagnose and treat precancerous conditions.

The side effects I experienced included dull cramps, light bleeding and nausea, which could have been psychosomatic because I’m quite sensitive. Resting and giving your body time to heal is essential. Support systems are too. I found this to be a very stressful and sad experience, which is normal when dealing with uncertainty.

After all of this is done you basically wait for results. Depending on what they are, you may need to continue with surgical procedures. This may sound daunting but I promise that knowing what’s up with your body and your health is empowering. Having answers leads to the tools that can fix the issue at hand. I was diagnosed with two strains of HPV (did you know that you can have more than one?) and cervical dysplasia, which is defined as “the presence of cells of an abnormal type within a tissue, which may signify a stage preceding the development of cancer.” I’m not out of the woods just yet but it’s good to know what I’m working with — and what I may be up against.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Most sexually active people will have it in their lifetime. There are many strains and most go away on their own, with some people never knowing they had it. There is strangely no test for men. There is a shot called Gardasil that protects against HPV within a certain age bracket (around 12-26 years old, for all genders.) I had never received sexual education, had never been vaccinated, and, since I’m almost 27, am no longer eligible for the shot.

HPV can cause cervical cancer as well as cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus and even oropharyngeal cancers (throat, tongue and tonsils.) I highly recommend informing yourself and the people you care about on this disease, as well as taking steps to prevent and/or get tested for it. It’s so important that more people know that something that’s been casually treated as a punchline because it’s so common (looking at you, Broad City) can also be something potentially life altering.

I’d suggest reading up on Gardasil and calling your doctor to schedule a vaccination and a Pap smear, if you don’t already regularly have them done. Better to be safe!

Cece is part of the Contributing Writer Network at Thirty On Tap. To apply to become a Contributing Writer, please click HERE.

{featured image via unsplash}