I am 68, sexually active, and use protection. I believe that whether you’re 13, 43 or 73, one’s sexual health is just as important a factor of our overall health as physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health are.
Last year, I had a test given to women called a PAP test or PAP smear. These tests are done every few years, depending on where you live, and test for cervical abnormalities. For the first time in my life, I got a call saying that abnormal cells had been detected and that the cells would be retested; if still found abnormal, cytology would be done. They also talked about something called HPV…What was HPV?!?!
My first reaction to the news of my having an abnormal Pap test was the thoughts of my mother, who died of cancer when I was a girl. Then I wondered if I’d done something to trigger this abnormality. My next reaction was a feeling of ignorance – that I had never heard of HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection! So I made an appointment with my doctor and while waiting for it, researched the subject. How could I – a modern and informed (so I thought) woman in a developed nation – not know about HPV? Very easily, it turned out. Many doctors aren’t telling adults about it.
During my research, I learned that there are over 290 million women worldwide (epidemic proportions) with HPV that may or may not go away on its own. There are over 180 different strains that are numbered, HPV 1, HPV 2, and so on. Some strains will come out as genital warts, others can lead to cancers such as cervical and oropharyngeal cancer, as well as cancer of the anus, vulva, vagina, and penis. People come into contact with HPV during any sexual contact below the belt, this includes using a mouth, hands, or fingers below the waistline, also including putting a penis or an object in a vagina or a butt, and rubbing against each other with skin to skin contact below the waistline even without any penetration.
I felt really betrayed by my doctor, who normally fully answered my questions, but in this case, I didn’t know about HPV so I didn’t know the questions to ask her. I have so much less confidence in her now that I had to learn about HPV from her nurse reporting those lab tests to me instead of my doctor. She did tell me there is a vaccine for HPV, which the country is giving for free to youth through in-school HPV vaccination programs. I found out this vaccine is also recommended for all individuals no matter their gender, and no matter their age seeing that the immunization experts have recommended it be given to all ages and has no upper age limit. I told her I wanted the vaccine and she arranged for it – it is paid by my basic health insurance plan, although not all plans necessarily cover it. It is a 2-dose vaccine taken over a period of 6 months and will literally save the lives of women and men everywhere– if they know about HPV and the vaccine.
I found the registered charity HPV Awareness in my research and spoke to Teresa and Amelie. They told me of their years of efforts to educate Canadians, and I decided to volunteer with them to be a part of spreading the word of the importance of the knowledge of HPV and of the vaccine.
It turned out, thankfully, that I didn’t have HPV and now, having had the vaccine, I am now protected from getting a high-risk strain of HPV and no one will ever get it from me. There are no symptoms for HPV, nor is there any test for males to detect whether they have it, that’s why this cancer prevention tool that serves as self-protection of HPV is vitally important.
I strongly encourage every one of ages 9 and up to 65+ to get the HPV vaccine, including all seniors who are, or plan to be, sexually active.
Written by: Jane Hunter, HPV Awareness member