Always Get Your Smears

Last year, I wrote an article for LAPP describing my fairly traumatic experience with an IUD and how dealing with that led me to (thankfully) discover that I’d contracted a high-risk strain of HPV. Although I was apprehensive about sharing my story, I received a lot of great feedback and support from others dealing with similar scenarios. Since then, I have continued to have a lot of females asking me for advice when it comes to sexual health, so I thought it was time to give an update on my journey in dealing with HPV.

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It is a sexually transmitted disease and is actually the most common of them all although many still don’t know too much about the virus. HPV manifests itself in over 250 different strains, but the high risk strains which include HPV 16 and 18 cause about 70% of cervical cancers. Although there are now vaccinations against some high-risk strains of HPV, there are still extremely high chances of contracting other high-risk strains of the virus. After finding out I had a high risk strain of HPV I was advised to continue having regular smear tests every 6 months by my private gynecologist to check that no abnormal changes were occurring in my cervix. A few months later, I moved from London to Los Angeles to complete my Master’s degree.

The healthcare system is extraordinarily different out here. It is not in any means free and my family had to pay for my medical insurance. Even with full medical coverage, I still managed to rack up a $4,000 hospital bill after enduring a kidney infection over Thanksgiving, so I decided to wait to have my smear test done until I returned home for Christmas the next month. I can proudly say that I am now more grateful than ever for the NHS. Although we cannot ignore the fundamental issues with the NHS and its power to further social inequalities in England, we should still appreciate its bare existence. I cannot begin to count the number of people I have met out here who have had no choice but to set up GoFundMe pages, ended up in extreme debt or even homeless as a result of hefty medical bills.

Even though I take the private medical route when it comes to my sexual health, it is still important to keep on top of when you’re due an appointment. Make sure that you book appointments well in advance, set yourself reminders and make sure to follow up with your doctor or gynaecologist if you feel like you have had to wait too long for your results. Even the private doctors might forget to send you a reminder for when you’re due a check, so remember to always keep on top of your own appointment reminders. After having to remind my private gynaecologist that she had previously suggested I come back for a smear test (yes, she forgot), I finally had the quick procedure done and waited to hear back regarding my results.

Ordinarily, I was used to receiving my results within 2-3 weeks, but I hadn’t heard back for a month. Now in the U.S., I reached out to my doctor via email for an update on my results. She replied insisting that I called her immediately, which of course was a worrying thing to hear! When I finally spoke with her, she informed me that since contracting high-risk strains of HPV my results had flagged some abnormal cell changes that had developed over a short 6-month period since my last checkup. This meant that I needed a colposcopy; a procedure that takes a biopsy of your cervix tissue to look for any pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. I ended up having the procedure carried out at a Planned Parenthood in Los Angeles as it was the cheapest option even with my health insurance. I had to wait two months before I could be seen but of course it was necessary to do so.

Two weeks after my colposcopy, I received my results. Thankfully, no sign of any cancerous cells but I have to continue having my regular pap smears every 6 months, and taking folic acid supplements in attempts to clear up the HPV virus. The interesting part about all of this, to me, is that although my body was going through all these changes I did not feel a thing. I was not in pain and I did not feel any differently physically, all I knew was that I did have a high-risk strain of HPV and that it was my responsibility to ensure that I kept on top of my own health. Back in December of last year, I went for my annual STI check. Yes, I still have regular checks even when I’m in a serious relationship. I do not mean to sound like that angry feminist that trusts no man, but at the end of the day ladies I was living with a boyfriend for 10 months and found out he was having unprotected sex with multiple women in my bed.

Since finding out, I have not only informed the aforementioned females that I carry a high-risk strain of HPV, but that I have also promised myself that I will continue to use condoms in my next serious relationship at least for the first year. I personally believe that my sexual health and fertility should come before short-term pleasure, and if you are with a man who loves and respects you he will not utter one word. Whilst getting my STI check, the nurse told me it was ‘pointless’ going for a smear test because she could ‘guarantee’ that they wouldn’t find any changes in my cells as changes usually occur over a much longer period of time. She was wrong.

My main point is this: even when a doctor or a nurse tells you otherwise, you should always follow your gut when it comes to your health. We all know that it is pretty messed up that the NHS doesn’t offer smear tests without reason to those under 25 years old. Some have argued that the age for smear testing shouldn’t be lowered to younger than 25 because women under that age are more likely to clear the HPV virus within two years, however we cannot deny the fact that many young women have lost their lives to this and there has been many protests and petitions to change this. This year, Theresa May has made great efforts to voice her own personal views on smear testing. Although she may have not implemented any real policy changes into the NHS yet, just speaking about them from a power of position has been a huge step from Gordon Brown’s inability to even utter the word ‘tampon’. We can’t always immediately control or change what larger institutions do or the regulations they set, but we can take charge of our own lives and our own health.

When it comes to your body, listen to it – not a nurse that you just met. Female intuition is real! You may not be experiencing pain necessarily but if you feel something is up or just have a gut feeling to get checked then do exactly that. This means that you should take (justified) advantage of the NHS when it is necessary. Of course, talk to other women (and men) about these issues. Educate yourselves and educate others! Starting and maintaining a discussion around women’s health is the only way any sustainable change will ever come about.

As mentioned, always get regular STI checks… even when you’re in a relationship. STD’s, such as HPV, can cause serious damage to your health and fertility if left untreated. Sexual health screenings are way more accessible and socially acceptable now. I remember the days when I would have to spend the whole day waiting awkwardly at my local hospital to get a screening. Now, there are so many more options to get checked. I personally go to Dean St Express in Central London. They are open Monday – Saturday and you can book an appointment at 7pm the night before. As well as experiencing the comfort of a chic lounge while you wait to be seen, you will also receive your results within 6 hours. Your body is YOUR responsibility, so be careful with it and make sure you stay attentive when it comes to booking appointments and getting checked.

Lastly, there are other ways and decisions you can make so that you can look after your health on a daily basis. For example, it does not cost a lot to feed your body effective probiotics and vitamins. Folic acids are great for helping the body produce and maintain new cells, meaning that they are great at helping to heal viruses such as HPV and acidophilus helps to treat and prevent vaginal infections by promoting the growth of good bacteria.  Eating a diet high in alkaline will raise blood pH levels so that cancers are less likely to form – cancers typically grow in acidic environments.  Maintaining a good fitness level and withstanding from smoking make for a healthy lifestyle that are sure to positively impact your sexual health.

Written by Christie Chapman

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