Cervical Health Awareness: Understand HPV, the facts vs. the fiction
January is Cervical Health Awareness, the time to shine a spotlight on the second most widespread cancer in women: Cervical Cancer. And there’s no room for discussing cervical cancer without talking about HPV (aka human papillomavirus).
The virus is prominent in almost 99.7% of cervical cancer cases, and it’s one of the most common STDs. But with so many of us shying away from discussing HPV, it can be hard to suss out what’s a myth and what’s the truth.
We’ve separated the facts from the fiction about HPV and cervical cancer, to help educate you on the virus, to help you better care for your cervical health:
FICTION: If I have HPV, I will get cervical cancer.
FACT: While you might be at a higher risk than those without the virus, it certainly does not mean you will develop cervical cancer. There are over 100 different types of HPV, with only around 15 high-risk types leading to cervical cancer, if the infection goes untreated or doesn’t clear itself. This is where the magic of early screening comes in to nip those abnormal cells in the bud before they get the chance to develop.
FICTION: I’ve had the HPV vaccine, so I won’t get HPV.
FACT: The vaccine protects against at least 70% of cancer-causing strains of the virus, but unfortunately you still won’t be 100% covered. Also note that even though you can be vaccinated up to the age of 26, the level of protection against the virus decreases if you’ve ever been sexually active and possibly exposed to the virus. This is where those important screenings come in!
FICTION: Only promiscuous women get HPV.
FACT: If you have ever been sexually active, then you could have been exposed to the virus. You can get HPV at the very first time of sexual contact, or if you’ve only had one sexual partner. Furthermore, a study showed around 80% of those who had as little as four sexual partners had caught HPV. And with the possibility of the virus laying inactive for years (literally up to 20!), you could develop HPV at any time and this doesn’t have to mean your partner has been unfaithful! Turns out it’s pretty impossible to pinpoint when or where you may have caught the virus, which is why those regular smear tests are so important.
FICTION: If you are pregnant and have HPV, your baby will be born with the virus.
FACT: Most pregnant women with HPV almost always deliver naturally, and it’s very rare for a newborn to get HPV from their mom. If you have the virus and are pregnant, try be open with your doctor and they’ll be able to advise you on any risks and help with peace of mind throughout your pregnancy.
FICTION: I use condoms, so don’t have to worry about HPV.
FACT: Although condoms work well to ward off most sexually transmitted infections, they’re less likely to protect you from viruses spread from skin-to-skin contact, aka HPV. This is simply down to the fact that condoms cannot cover all of your junk during sex. Though this doesn’t mean you should ditch condoms all together, as some level of protection is always better than none.
FICTION: An abnormal pap test means I have cervical cancer.
FACT: An abnormal pap test hardly ever means you have cervical cancer. All it means is that the cell samples taken vary from “normal” cells under a microscope. This difference can be down to a whole load of factors, from a non-HPV infection, general irritation, a low-risk form of HPV, or even due to a mistake when prepping your cell samples. Although it’s rare, these cells could develop into cervical cancer if left untreated for years, which is why all women with abnormal results should attend their follow-ups.
FICTION: I have no family history of cervical cancer, so I don’t need to worry about it.
FACT: With cervical cancer mostly being caused by HPV- spread from skin-to-skin contact in the genital area- anyone who has been sexually active is at risk of cervical cancer, even if no one in your family has ever had the disease.
FICTION: Cervical cancer cannot be prevented.
FACT: In reality, it is one of the most preventable forms of cancer out there, thanks to vaccinations and early screening/smear tests. The HPV vaccination, advised from the age of 11, can protect you from high risk forms of the virus which can lead to cervical cancer.
With all the mystery surrounding HPV, it can be upsetting when you’re first diagnosed- but remember, you are NOT alone! There are 14 million new HPV infections diagnosed in the US each year, that’s a whole load of people in the same boat as you ❤️ For more information and advice, head to https://www.jostrust.org.uk
*Cover image Credit @ Bustle.com