Living with HPV

By LISA SPINELLI  |  September 4, 2009

That is exactly what has happened to me. My whole ordeal began in May 2007, when I was living near Oklahoma City and got my annual PAP smear. The only reason I made an appointment in the first place was because I needed a refill of birth-control pills — I didn’t even need an annual exam. But to get a refill you gotta get a check-up, and now I should be happy I did. I guess.

About two weeks later, Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma called me back with my test results and told me I had an abnormal PAP smear with the presence of LSIL cells. They said I should come in for a colposcopy.

I nearly dropped the phone. LSIL cells? What in the hell does that mean? Colpo-what-the-fuck?

I hung up and started frantically googling all spellings of “LSIL cells” and “colpo-whatever.”

What I found out was this: a cervix is made up of squamous cells that are similar in structure to that of gland cells. When a woman gets an infection like HPV, these squamous cells can start to transform into dysplasic (or abnormal) cells. LSIL cells — or low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions — are equivalent to an area where a number of these abnormal cells are grouped together, like a bunch of greasy douchebags at a nightclub.

The good news is that LSIL cells usually “resolve” themselves (go back to normal) within two years. When dealing with LSIL cells, doctors recommend the “wait and watch” (a/k/a the “sit and be tortured”) method. But the waiting (and waiting and waiting) is an ill-advised invitation for curious doomsayers like me to research “LSIL” and “squamous cells” ad nauseum. And what pops up prominently in nearly every Google search for these words? “Cancer.”

After seeing that dreaded word, I wasn’t about to gamble. I followed the herd and went back to a doctor. I switched to a private practitioner’s office for a colposcopy, a procedure in which a gynecologist basically spreads a woman wide open, gets out a microscope, and stares into her vagina to see if her cervix has any abnormal-looking cell growth (like the LSIL areas) that can be pinpointed for a cancer-testing biopsy.

Pain-wise, the procedures aren’t as bad as they sound. The colposcopy doesn’t hurt. And while the biopsies don’t feel good by any stretch of the imagination, they don’t necessarily cause too much pain, if done gently (as gently as slicing a piece of your cervix from inside of you can be done, anyway).

Psychologically, though, the process is terrifying. One colposcopy and a few biopsies later, I was in the doctor’s office with my fiancé, about to freak the fuck out as the doctor continuously mentioned cancer as a possible outcome of these results. Up until that point, I had been relatively calm, but that damn doctor must have used the word 20 times in my 15-minute visit.

Cancer can and does develop for people with HPV — it is, after all, the leading cause of cervical cancer. But it’s certainly not something to obsess over if regular check-ups are being done, says Dr. Janelle Luk, a third-year resident at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). “Only a small percentage would develop cervical cancer if the abnormal cells were not removed,” concurs the National Cancer Institute HPV Q&A Web site.

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    The results are “normal.” I breathe a sigh of relief. But should I be relieved? It’s been two years since I heard a registered nurse tell me “You have HPV,” and I am still getting scraped from the inside out, still making appointments to see doctors, and still terrified that I’ll get cancer.

 See all articles by: LISA SPINELLI