As told to Nicole Audrey Spector
Growing up as the child of a Mexican, Catholic mother and a Palestinian, Muslim father, I lived by my parents’ two strict rules:
You don’t talk about sex.You don’t even think about having sex until you’re married.
I followed the first rule so carefully, for so long. The second rule, not so much. I became sexually active as a teenager but kept that to myself, knowing that if my parents found out, I’d be in very serious trouble — as in, I’d likely be disowned.
Female anatomy was another taboo topic at home, so I was also mindful to never talk about my body. In fact, I was mindful to never even learn about my body. To a great extent, this made me naive about myself. I didn’t even know what vaginal discharge was until I was in my 20s.
So, when a routine Pap smear came back abnormal, I was totally in the dark as to what that might mean. I was at the mercy of my OB-GYN, a kind and professional woman at Planned Parenthood, where I’d been going for years for exams and birth control. I’d stuck with Planned Parenthood because I didn’t have healthcare coverage, and they provided me services at no cost.
A follow-up HPV test revealed that I had a common virus, human papillomavirus (HPV), a viral infection that is transmitted through sex that roughly 80% of women will get at some point in their lives. HPV frequently causes genital warts, but I had no symptoms I could detect.
Not only did I have HPV, but I had a particularly virulent strain — either type 16 or 18, both of which can lead to cervical cancer and often don’t cause symptoms.
I was told to come back to Planned Parenthood for a colposcopy to thoroughly examine my cervix. During this procedure, my healthcare provider (HCP) took a biopsy of my cervix.
While nervously awaiting the results, I felt alone and ashamed. I couldn’t talk to my parents because then they’d know I was having sex. I sheepishly confided in one of my sisters, who snapped back with judgment.
“I hope you’re not telling anyone else this,” she said. “You’re going to make our family look bad.”
Despite learning that HPV was something so many women dealt with, I felt as though I were being punished for being sexually active. I always used condoms with my partners, and yet I still contracted this potentially lethal virus because condoms can’t offer complete protection from HPV. I was also deeply regretting my history as a casual smoker, having just learned from my OB-GYN that smoking is associated with an increased risk for contracting HPV.
The results of my biopsy came back, and they were not good. I had precancerous cells in my cervix.
My OB-GYN strongly recommended a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) to remove the precancerous cells. A LEEP is only about 10 minutes long, but a lot happens in those 10 minutes. A wire loop is inserted in your vagina to cut out the abnormal tissue in your cervix, which is then cauterized (burned) to stop any bleeding. It takes about four to six weeks to heal from the procedure.
“This will turn into cervical cancer if left untreated,” the doctor said, emphatically.
I flashed to the fact that I had no medical coverage and couldn’t afford surgery, but I was assured by my doctor that the procedure would be 100% covered by Planned Parenthood. It wouldn’t cost me a penny.
I agreed to undergo the LEEP but worried that it would affect my ability to carry a baby, which is something I very much wanted to do in the future. Though quite rare, these procedures can impact fertility and pregnancy.
My OB-GYN took my concerns very seriously and told me that the doctor who would perform the LEEP would be extremely conservative, and that the procedure should not affect my chances of getting pregnant or of carrying a baby to term. She did a great job of making me feel confident about having the procedure — as did the rest of the staff — but I was still afraid.
I remember staring up at the ceiling during the procedure, anxiously looking at a poster of a cat that was taped there. Everything went well, but I realized I was angry at my parents. They knew I was having an outpatient surgery that day because of “something with my cervix” (that was all I could safely tell them), and rather than inquiring about what was going on or offering real support, they just brushed it off by saying they would pray for me.
I needed so much more than prayers from them. I needed love and support that I could feel in my bones. I needed to know I could talk to them about anything. Instead, I was forced to clam up lest I send them into fits of rage about my ruined purity.
Today — 12 years after my terrifying battle with HPV (it has since cleared and I have been vaccinated against it) — I am happily married with an amazing son I carried to term without any complications.
And I’ve broken my family’s iron rule to never talk about sex or anatomy around them. I want to set an example for my child that it’s OK to talk about these topics. My family is still uncomfortable when I say these kinds of things, but I don’t let it bother me because I get it now — it’s their shame, not mine.
*Anna is not her real name.
This resource was created with support from Merck.