Dear Body Party,
I got an irregular Pap Test, indicating that I most likely have human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV seems like a very big deal because it could lead to cervical cancer, but also like a very not big deal because I heard most people get it at some point in their lives—so what’s the deal? Should I freak out? Should I tell my partners? Should I tell everyone I ever had sex with? Should I call my mom?
I think the only reason to freak out is that you’re going to have to spend a little more time with doctors then you were planning to, as many HPV infections are simply inconveniences rather than life altering concerns. You’re right that the majority of sexually active people will get HPV in their lifetime. And although HPV can cause anal, penile, and cervical cancer, among others, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that nine out of ten HPV infections will be cleared naturally by the body within three years and will never become cancerous. Only a handful of HPV strains are responsible for cancer.
A friendly message for the other readers out there– cancer from HPV regularly takes years and years to develop, which makes screening crucial. If your Pap Test is positive for HPV then your next step is to get a HPV DNA test, which will give you an idea of what kind of HPV strand is showing up and whether or not cancer is a concern. Not all strains cause cancer, although even the ones that do not can cause other unpleasant symptoms genital warts. Here is some very convoluted math pulled from the CDC fact sheet on cancer caused by HPV: 90 percent of HPV infections will be cleared out by the immune system within three years. Of the remaining 10 percent, only 5% of infections will develop into precancerous entities, of which only 40% will ever become truly cancerous.
The biggest issue with HPV is not actually the chance that it can develop into cancer, but the fact that it is easily transmitted and hard to test for. HPV is transmitted by any skin to skin contact, so no matter what kind of sex you’re having, or with who, you could get infected or infect them. On its own that isn’t a big deal, considering that HPV is generally benign, but it can be a real problem considering that if you don’t have a uterus there is no way to test for HPV, which makes partner protection key. It may be worthwhile to send messages to the folks you have had sex with that can get tested letting them know that you have had an abnormal Pap Test and that they should get checked. If your HPV DNA test results say that your HPV is one of the potentially cancerous strains, I would definitely make notifying new partners part of your pre sex/ getting to know you ritual. If not, I think disclosure is good practice but not crucial—chances are they already have it, whether they know they do or not.
As for whether or not you should call your mom, that depends on what kind of mom you have—if she is the kind to be open, understanding, and compassionate, I’d say that it certainly couldn’t hurt. Unconditional love, whether it comes from your mom or your friends, is the best cure for the kind of anxiety that doctors offices and test results breeds.
Stay safe & have fun,
Body Party is a positive, open-minded column about everything bodies, sex, relationships, and self love. This column is not written by a doctor but done by a person who has researched the topic and looked into your questions thoroughly. If you have any questions or problems and want advice about sex, medication, love, STD’s ect. please submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org