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Why Knowing Your Cycle Could Save Your Life
From HPV to cervical cancer, spotting intimate changes could be the key to good health
It started with some irregular bleeding. It was nothing too dramatic – some spotting between periods, and occasionally after sex – but I wanted to err on the side of caution. After all, while it’s incredibly unusual for a woman in her early 20s to be diagnosed with gynaecological cancers, I figured better safe than sorry and booked myself in for a cervical smear test in London.
A week later, the doctor called. They’d found some anomalies, and I’d tested positive for the strains of HPV that, if left untreated, can lead to cervical cancer. I was thrown off, not least because I’d actually had the HPV vaccination at school when I was 13. The doctor asked me to come back to London for further testing in the next couple of weeks, to find out what was going on. As a recovering hypochondriac, I threw myself into researching HPV and irregular smear tests and was met with a barrage of complicated information online.
Back in London, I had multiple smear tests, a colposcopy and a biopsy to get the root of the problem, and throughout the process, it struck me that we just don’t know enough about women’s health. I like to think of myself as an educated, aware person, someone on top of their health and, naturally, particularly interested in women’s issues. But when I was faced with questions like “how many days exactly is your period?” and “how often do you usually experience pelvic pain?”, I realised I could hardly answer even these basic questions about my own body.
Not paying attention to the changes in your body can be detrimental to your health – or in the worst cases, literally life-threatening. It’s a concerning truth that women’s health is taken less seriously than men’s. That could be why it can take between seven and twelve years on average for doctors to diagnose endometriosis, which is often written off as bad period pain. I was worried by how little I knew about HPV and its implications, so I decided to dive into the information that’s out there. So, what exactly is HPV? It stands for human papillomavirus, and it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection. It’s so common, in fact, that Dr Anna Pallecaros, a genito-urinary specialist based in London, tells me that “most of us will come across at least one type of HPV in our lives”. There are over 100 strands of HPV, and these very common viruses, which cause no harm in most people, are usually cleared by the body’s immune system. A minority of people, however, don’t process them as well as others, which could lead to genital warts and cancer. While there’s currently no cure for HPV, there’s a vaccine you can get (if you didn’t already get it at school), and using condoms lowers your chance of getting the infection. “Between 20 and 72 per cent of completely healthy penises have HPV if you swab them,” says Dr Anna. “So, if any of us do have sex without a condom, then we’re likely to come across these very common viruses.”
I asked Dr Anna why so many women under the age of 25 don’t get routine smear tests in the UK. “It’s so normal to come across HPV,” she explained. “You usually come across them in the first couple of years of ever having sex, and most people who have HPV will have no harm at all. Our early 20s are a time when the majority of people are coming across these viruses, but their bodies are processing them successfully immunologically. If you look at populations, then testing and treating people going through that normal, successful process is estimated to cause more harm than good.” However, as Dr Anna warns, this is only true for women with no symptoms – after that, it’s important to attend regular smear tests for routine check-ups.
If you’re experiencing symptoms out of the ordinary, don’t wait for your smear test to come around. I asked Dr Anna what women should be looking out for in terms of their sexual health, and when to know if they should go to the doctor. “It really does take tests to decide what’s wrong, so I wouldn’t second guess. If you’re experiencing symptoms like a difference in appearance or discharge, of course see a doctor,” she advises. She’s also at pains to point out that STIs are often asymptomatic. “It’s really interesting that, because most STIs cause no symptoms, you wouldn’t notice anything different to normal. If you take men with chlamydia, for example, up to 70 per cent would have no symptoms at all. Up to 80 per cent of us with herpes will never even get one sore,” she explains. “Rather than thinking about what we should look out for, the best thing is to use condoms as protection, and go for check-ups rather than honing in on this particular symptom or that particular symptom.”
That said, you can’t discuss sexual health without also touching on cultural and societal taboos. Since HPV is omnipresent, I wanted to know if Dr Anna advises telling a new sexual partner you have HPV. Turns out, the answer isn’t black and white. “It’s quite contextual. Remember that HPV is actually a very large, diverse family of viruses. Are we talking about HPV six and 11, which cause 90 per cent of genital warts? Are we talking about HPV 16 and 18, which can change cervical cells? It really depends on what we mean by HPV,” she says.
As for me, my own ordeal had a happy ending and my six-month check-up found that my body had cleared the virus. I did, however, learn a very important lesson: listen to your body, go for regular check-ups, and if something feels wrong, go to the doctor. Knowledge is power, and that’s all the more true when it comes to your body.
For more information, head to Jo’s Trust