I Had HPV and Lived to Tell the Tale

Bryce Covert As a follow-up from Maya’s post yesterday and for #HPVDay today, this is a guest post by Bryce Covert, a writer and editor who works on feminism, economic equality, and progressive politics. You can find her work here.

I was 24 when I found out that my health insurance would cover the full cost of getting three shots of Gardasil, the newly released HPV vaccine. I signed up immediately — but I was already too late.

I started a monogamous relationship with a boy who thought he was clean of STDs in January of 2008. In March, I had my third and final Gardasil shot. By June we had broken up, and it wasn’t until after a check-up appointment with my gynecologist in September that I learned I had “high risk” HPV. On the phone, getting the news, I remember clearly that my first reaction was, “But my boyfriend told me he didn’t have any STDs.” My doctor reminded me that men can’t be detected as carriers – and it’s hard to pin down who gives it to you. My very next reaction was, “But I’ve had the Gardasil vaccination.” To which she replied, “Did you have intercourse before finishing your shots?” There was the problem.

The Republican presidential candidates have created an unlikely swirl of controversy lately over the HPV vaccine and whether women should be immunized against a virus that can end up giving them cervical cancer. And sure, Michele Bachmann probably wouldn’t be on my side. I was, after all, having sex outside of the sacred bonds of marriage. But other than that, I took the precautions I should have. I made sure he had been tested for STDs before we had sex. We used condoms. Yet neither of those precautions can guard against a virus that can’t be detected in men and can be passed even with the use of barrier contraception.

The GOP is debating the use of the vaccine for young girls. My biggest regret was not that I had sex, but that I hadn’t gotten the vaccine earlier. The pain I experienced of getting an STD from a newly ex-boyfriend was only amplified by not having been as protected as possible. Now it felt void. I had already been given the virus before I could finish getting the vaccine. And I’m lucky to have been well informed and well insured enough to hop on it right away. There were about 50 million uninsured Americans last year who would have to pay out of pocket for the vaccine. Meanwhile, it seems conservatives are intent on making sure women are more scared of having sex than of having cervical cancer.

I am also extremely lucky that I never developed any cancerous lesions and have now been clear of it for a few years. Many women have much more harrowing stories about their experiences with cancer-causing strains of HPV. Some will not live to tell the tale.

And I’m very lucky in one other crucial way. A few months after I found out about my HPV, I met a boy who I liked and who liked me back. We started to date. So I had The Conversation with him about my STD. And he told me it didn’t matter to him. Most won’t have that same experience. Despite the fact that about 80 percent of sexually active people will be infected with some strain HPV at some point in their lives, because it is contracted by having sex it still comes loaded with shame. When Ayelet Waldman shared her experience of getting it from her husband on Twitter, the reaction was “TMI!” and “Ew!”

There is nothing TMI about talking about our experiences with HPV. It is common and hard to prevent – except for getting the vaccine (for the types that matter). Meanwhile, more than 12,000 women are expected to be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2011, and high-risk HPV is the primary cause of it. More than 4,000 are expected to die from it. And the damage isn’t limited to women: 5,600 men get HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers yearly, 1,500 get HPV-associated anal cancer, and 400 men get HPV-associated penile cancer. It affects nearly everyone in some way — and for some it can mean a death sentence. This is nothing to hide in the closet. My story is one of success, but not everyone will be so lucky.

We need to share these stories. We need to fight the stigma around all STDs (no, they’re not punishment for being a slut), but this one in particular is quickly becoming the STD that defines our generation. Silence and shame only serve to make it spread more quickly.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 17, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    “Silence and shame only serve to make it spread more quickly.”

    So true, so very very true.

  2. Posted September 17, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I understand the concern and the need to have open and free speech and discussion about sex and sexual health.
    But, my feminism tells me to examine how this vaccine is actually effecting women. Because, my healthy cousin lost most of her body mass, eventually becoming paralyzed, and dying within less than a year of getting the swine flu shot. And the doctors couldn’t tell us what was wrong with her.

    Y’all had a commenter on an older HPV post say Feministing should also have a focus on the harm caused by the vaccine:
    “Nicole Bergreen
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I understand what you are saying but as someone who had one of the “rare” side effects of the HPV vaccine I think more focus needs to be payed to the government mandating things that can potentially harm people. It needs to be parents decisions if and when their children receive this vaccine.

    Before getting vaccinated I worked full-time, went to school full-time, volunteered as an EMT, and raised my 2-year old nephew. As a result of the vaccine a developed a condition called dysautonomia. For the past 3 years I have been completely homebound and dependent on my girlfriend for everything from showers to bringing me food. I am unable to stand up without passing out and many days I am unable to even sit up. I have a port in my chest, will be getting a feeding tube, have to be taken to the doctors at least twice a week for infusions, and have spent at least a week of every month for the last 3 years in the hospital.

    This vaccine has completely ruined my life. The government needs to stay out of my bedroom, whether it is to tell me my relationship in invalid because I’m a lesbian or if it’s to “protect” me from HPV>”

    The medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies have a bloody and greedy history, especially in regard to caring about women’s health. And no one can say what the long term side effects of the vaccination are. BUT, my point is that there should not be a mandate forcing girls to be inoculated by the government. What about the bodily agency and autonomy for girls? Also, Parents have a right to not allow their child to be administered a vaccine with such harsh adverse reactions.

    Check out these sites: http://www.defectivedrug.com/gardasil.php, http://truthaboutgardasil.org/memorial/, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/08/19/cbsnews_investigates/main5253431.shtml

  3. Posted September 18, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Thank you, I was recently diagnosed with this, and as it hadn’t come as a big shock to me (I knew the 80% statistic), the stigma around it did, leaving me feeling “dirty” and ashamed. More people need to understand that an STD, while an unfortunate event, does not come from being irresponsible or a “slut.” People in long term monogamous relationships get it too.

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