Human Papillomavirus (HPV) showed up on my vagina while I was pregnant with my third child. As a married woman, I felt embarrassed by my condition. I told almost no one. We women don’t normally talk with anyone outside of medical professionals about a part of the body that we all have. But, HPV is the most common STD in the United States with more than 3 million cases diagnosed every year. We need to begin to normalize conversations about vaginal health. This is the story of my secret surgery.
My Diagnosis and Treatment
During the last trimester of my third pregnancy, during a non-routine pelvic exam my doctor observed some abnormal coloring of my vulva. Luckily, there were specialists on hand to diagnose Vulvar Intraepithelial Neoplasia (VIN). Those were the words I had to go home and tell my husband had been found at 30 weeks pregnant. VIN is usually caused by low risk types of HPV. A biopsy showed mine was precancerous. I had to wait until after delivery to have it addressed. For treatment, I sought treatment at a specialty clinic at the University of Michigan.
At six months postpartum, while still exclusively breastfeeding my infant, I underwent surgery to have precancerous cells removed from my vagina. It was a surgical procedure that resulted in a very painful recovery– more painful than recovering from either of my vaginal births. This experience I would not wish on any woman.
I Felt Alone and Ashamed
I told very few people. There was something that made me, the queen of openness, not want to share what I experienced: shame. Women don’t discuss their vaginas openly, except in relation to pregnancy. As a married woman, I felt alone having this disease and that it made me a disappointment to my husband.
The truth is that there is no way to know when I contracted HPV, so for all I knew, my husband could have been the one to give it to me, but it made me feel shame for my sexual past.
I opened up to a close friend, she helped me feel like it was a more normal experience. I have family members who have had issues with their cervical health, but none who had opened up to me about their experiences. It was still a subject that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about in front of mixed company; somehow the negative connotation involving HPV is too overwhelming for me to just come out and speak openly about.
Why is it so taboo to talk about our vaginas?
This isn’t an issue that I feel comfortable talking about with my own mother, and I want to build a more open relationship with my kids. I want them to feel comfortable talking to me about their sexual health.
I found a group of women in a Facebook group that I was able to share my experience with, which was helpful. Another member had cervical cancer and was very knowledgeable about the types of things I was dealing with in regards to treatment options. Finding a supportive outlet for my fears and experiences got me through a very painful episode in my life.
My story, unfortunately, isn’t rare. Eight out of 10 women have HPV. It is common for women to have vaginal issues, yet no one talks about it. Society teaches us that it is not okay to talk about parts of our bodies that are related to our sexual health. Women need more safe places to talk about issues that are common to women.