Why you should talk to your partner about HPV and the facts you need to know.
A sexually transmitted virus is a two (or more) person discussion. It doesn’t have to be a solitary experience, even if you aren’t romantically tied to your partner, there will likely be someone after, and someone after that. It’s a dual experience.
The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a curable virus, but it is linked to cancers in the anus, penis, cervix, and vulva. Recent studies have found that HPV is linked to throat cancer and possibly heart disease. While most HPV types clear up over time, HPV 16 and 18 cause approximately 70 percent of cervical cancers around the world. The virus is one of the most commonly sexually transmitted infections. The good news is that it’s also the most preventable.
The Village Voice recently published a piece by Jen Doll, who explained that HPV is seen as a complicated discussion to have with a partner — as many people don’t have physical evidence of the virus and others don’t want to scare off a potential partner.
Doll wrote, “No one wants to admit it, no one talks about it, and when people do, it’s in whispers and there’s a lot of misinformation…But what if you knew that almost everyone you knew had at one point had (or currently has) HPV? Would you feel less ashamed? If all of us have had it, and all of us admit it, doesn’t it take the shame… out of it?”
Beginning an open dialogue with your partner can be intimidating, but it’s necessary. When you’re sharing sheets with someone, you’re also sharing your sexual health. General disclosure is clearly up to your own discretion, but it is advised for a healthy and sexy future. So, how do I go about this conversation? Let’s get into it.
Step 1. Begin by explaining an abnormal Pap.
Even for people with a cervix, a Pap can be confusing. Pap smears look for abnormal cells on the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer. OBGYN Dr. Rebecca Levy-Gantt wrote, “There are other things that can be seen on a Pap smear, but its primary purpose is to look for cervical cancer. (It gives no information about your uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries, each of which may have their very own cancers, but cannot be screened for with a Pap smear). The Pap smear may also reveal if there is yeast, bacteria, or a viral infection present, but again, those are not the main purpose of the Pap smear.”
According to the American Cancer Society, a Pap test is a “well-proven way to prevent cervix cancer.” An abnormal Pap does not signify cancer, however. Instead, it’s the presence of cell changes that are caused by HPV.
Step 2. Explain follow-up procedures.
If you get the phone call that your results are abnormal, your first reaction might be fear. There isn’t any particular way to sugar coat the news. Remind your partner that they should be a support system for when you go in for a colposcopy (biopsy) to further look at the abnormal cells. The biopsy will indicate whether the cells are cancerous or not.
A colposcopy/biopsy is going to be demanding of your body, both physically and psychologically. A colposcopy is when a physician examines an illuminated areas of the cervix, vagina, and vulva. A colposcope is an electronic microscope which allows the physician to see the cervix more clearly when magnified. If abnormal areas are seen under the colposcope, tissue samples may be taken and sent off to a lab for further testing by a pathologist.
Ask your partner, or friends, to be conscious of your pain. The procedure may cause minor cramping and a dark discharge will be present for a few days afterward. Moreover, the psychological impact of waiting for the test results, to see how advanced your abnormal cells are, can take a toll on your emotions. If you have a solid relationship with your current partner, ask them to take time out of their day to be with you and supportive of your needs. If you’re comfortable, explain the experience with your partner and discuss what the biopsy was so that everyone is aware of what occurs when abnormal cells are found on the cervix.
Step 3. Address any questions they might have — these are a few that could come up.
If you don’t know the answer to their questions, you’re in the right place for more information (aka tabú).
How did I contract HPV?
The FAQ page on TheHPVTest.com says, “It is impossible to know for certain from whom you got the HPV virus in the first place. You can have been exposed in another relationships months of years earlier, and the infection may have been dormant or ‘silent’ is the meantime.”
This means that pointing fingers is ultimately a waste of time.
HPV can take up to 15 years to show any signs or appear as abnormal cells; that’s a long time, and a lot of potential partners. Placing blame on one another for being the source of infection is a fruitless attempt — it could have been anyone. It’s also important to note that if you’re in a monogamous relationship, this doesn’t mean that either you or your partner were unfaithful.
So, why didn’t we see the warning signs?
The majority of the time, HPV is pretty silent. That’s why Pap’s are so incredibly important and staying up to date is essential — the doctors can see what we can’t.
There are 40 different types of HPV, and 90 percent of them clear up on their own before showing any symptoms. In some cases genital warts do appear, but they typically clear up within two years. If you do find any lumps or warts, contact your healthcare provider for treatment and medicine.
What’s really interesting is that the HPV that causes warts is not the same that typically causes cancer. So if you have one, you probably don’t have the other.
What does all of this mean for your partner?
Scientists brought Gardasil to the table in 2009 which is a preventable cancer vaccination. Everyone, even people with penises, can get the HPV vaccination from ages 19–26. The earlier the better, but regardless, it’s still important to look into getting pricked. There isn’t an HPV test for people with penises because abnormal Paps are only for infections of the cervix. But if your partner has a cervix, encourage them to get the HPV test.
A 2016 study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that certain HPV types decreased in 64 percent of people with a cervix. By 2020, researchers hope that 80 percent of people will have all recommended Gardasil doses.
What does this mean for your relationship?
Remember to stay protected, as the cervix can become reinfected with HPV if condoms aren’t used during sexual activity. Unfortunately, because this virus is determined and stubborn, HPV can infect areas that aren’t covered by condoms, which means that it can be spread orally as well.
The cold hard truth is that you’ll probably have HPV at one point in your sexual life, especially since HPV can infect someone even if they have no signs or symptoms.
For most people, with a cervix or without, HPV is still an ominous mystery. Does it go away on its own? Does it indicate cancer? Is it something we shouldn’t worry about? The questions are boundless and worrisome (so check out Izabella Kaczmarek’s run down of Q&A’s).
What is most important is that everyone involved is knowledgeable and educated about this virus that impacts 80 percent of the US population. Destigmatizing STIs has been on the rise in recent sexual education, so why not with HPV? If we all have it, we should definitely know all there is to know about it. No excuses, my carnal friends.
Header image illustrated by Marcy Gooberman