Living with HPV

By LISA SPINELLI  |  September 4, 2009

I called my sister, a nurse, and discussed. I called about five girlfriends before I decided, okay, fine, I’ll go to another gyno. I was pretty sick of visiting doctors at this point and being poked like a stuffed pig. But, I thought, just to be safe — and mostly to get my mother off my ass — I would go. And I did.

Guess what? Not only had the HPV returned, it was back with a vengeance. My status had been raised to a high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (HSIL) presence, meaning these cells had a higher likelihood than the LSIL cells of worsening and turning into cancer. Just great.

What did this mean?, I asked Dr. Luk at MGH. Okay, I didn’t exactly “ask” — I more accurately interrogated her like she was in a CIA water-boarding facility — but the more information I got out of her, the more scared I got. And the more scared I got, the closer I was to tears.

“You may have to get a LEEP,” she said, before adding, “I don’t want you to worry about this, Lisa — this doesn’t mean you have cancer.”

Don’t worry about this? How could I not worry about this? I did appreciate the sentiment — it briefly helped ease my obsessive mind. But that didn’t stop me from fixating on this LEEP-procedure idea.

A LEEP — or Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure — is an out-patient operation in which a doctor takes a wire-loop electrode and cuts away an area of a woman’s cervix thought to be infected with HPV. The abnormal cells are sent off to a lab and, says Dr. Barton, if the whole abnormal area is scooped out, many women never have any more problems.

I have known three of my girlfriends to get this procedure and, indeed, all of them have been fine since. One even had a baby afterward. But, on the downside, there is a slight risk (about one percent) that, if you get pregnant after a LEEP, your cervix will not be strong enough to hold a child and you could miscarry.

My new obsession became thinking about how I would never be a mother. Feminist though I am, I would look over at my husband and, in my worst moments, pity him for having married a woman who could never bear his children. I wasn’t necessarily worried that one LEEP would do that to me, but I was sure I would wind up having to continually fight off this HPV by getting LEEPs until my cervix was whittled down like an old piece of wood in the hands of some West Virginian hillbilly. I cried, a lot.

Another appointment was scheduled for three months later. My mother lost it. Three months seemed like an eternity, but I was happy not to have to go through the procedure just yet. I wanted to try to beat this thing. If I ate a ton of antioxidants (especially those allegedly linked to helping cure cervical cancer) and lost some weight, I thought, I would have a better chance of squashing this infection than I would if I just sat on my ass. I stocked up on sunflower seeds, ate blueberries like they were going out of style, went to the gym four times a week, and even bought $6 bottles of acai juice. And yes, this regimen probably produced more gas than good.

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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.

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