HPV & How To Deal With The Never-Ending Stigma Around Cervical Cancer

  • 6 mins read
  • Health Conditions
  • Women's Health
  • Dr. Jatin Bhide
How to end the stigma around cervical cancer

What is HPV and how does HPV cause cancer?

HPV is one of the most commonly spread sexually transmitted infection in men and women. It’s estimated that at least 70% men and women come in contact with the virus in their lifetime. Most cases do not cause any symptoms and our body’s immune system clears it off within two years of the infection naturally. However, in a fewer percentage, the virus remains inside the body and causes multiple diseases such as genital warts, and even cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, penis, vulva.

Currently, there are no treatment options as such for treating the HPV infection, but getting screened regularly (pap test or HPV test) can significantly decrease the risk of virus spreading further and causing any serious complications.

As mentioned, the HPV virus being a sexually transmitted virus, spreads through any type of sexual contact. One unique property of this virus is that it spreads through skin-to-skin contact and not through bodily fluids. So, those who have had multiple sexual partners, are at a greater risk of getting infected with this virus.

HPV, Cervical Cancer and the FEAR!

The most relevant thing to discuss here is the relation of the HPV virus and the risk of cervical cancer in women. There are certain HPV virus types which are resistant to our natural immunity and remain in the body, ultimately causing some unwanted changes in the cell of the women cervix leading to cancer. This cancer is detected early by getting screened using a pap smear test or an HPV test.

Despite being untreatable, the abnormal cells of the cervix can be removed via surgery, thereby reducing the risk of cervical cancer, if found early. The thought of getting tested for something always incites fear in people’s mind. Even today, many are perplexed by their HPV diagnosis when they know they’ve been in a monogamous relationship.

However, if the results are not in their favour, then doubts and confusion arise which makes them think their partner might have been unfaithful. But an important thing to note here is that the HPV can persist in the body for years. It takes almost 10-20 years for the cancer to develop without any classical symptoms.

Hence, it is considered very critical to get yourself tested regularly and get vaccinated for the HPV at a certain age in order to reduce the cancer risk. All in all, there’s no one to blame for a positive HPV result as the virus is very common and can be passed even through protected sex. Moreover, not all HPVs can be eradicated using the vaccine.

So, why’s there a stigma till date?

Stigma around HPV and cancers

HPV is a relatively new topic that causes a lot of confusion around it, ultimately making way for certain myths around it, which are a different problem on their own.

Read more on this in “Cervical Cancer: Debunking the Myths & Facts”.

Let’s take some cues from real life examples. Women often feel confused after their initial HPV diagnosis and report feelings of disgust, feeling dirty, or thinking they have done something wrong. Some women even blame it on their partners and also makes them question their ex-partners. This confusion and fear make them reluctant to get close in order to keep the cancer away. It also increases the feeling of being left alone, ashamed and scared to talk about the diagnosis to anyone. But experts say no one should feel this way.

A recent survey of over 200 women found that 1 in 5 women found that it would be embarrassing to know that they have the HPV. Moreover, < 22% said that they wouldn’t date someone with HPV8. Many women believed that they would not have sex with (41%) or kiss (23%) someone who had the HPV, believing that it would have a negative impact on their dating or sex life. Half of the women considered ending the relationship with someone who had the virus.

While much of this fear is still valid and understandable, there is a need to be more aware about how the HPV gets contracted and not overestimate the risk to your health.

Read more on this in “Reducing cervical cancer, its screening and what should we know about it?”

It’s also possible that the way we communicate about HPV is part of the problem which needs to be changed. Doctors report that when the patients are told they have a sexually transmitted infection (STI), it makes them feel shameful and they are embarrassed due to the ongoing stigma around sexual health. Experts suggest that calling it a virus instead of a STI would help reduce some stigma around it.

What can be done?

  • In the case you get diagnosed, never panic. As we already discussed, HPV is common and our immune system clears it off within 2 years naturally, without any symptoms. Therefore, it’s nothing to be ashamed or scared of.
  • If you have any questions, concerns about the diagnosis and want to know more, then speak with a trusted healthcare professional. Also, join a charity group or call their helplines to get your questions answered to get the reassurance you need.
  • An important fact regarding cervical cancer is that it is completely preventable if found early. This is the reason so much importance is placed on the need to get tested to check for any signs of cancer, and start the right treatment options straight away before the condition worsens. It has been found that women with invasive cervical cancers were the ones who didn’t get screened regularly.
  • The HPV vaccine is available to stay away from the infections and reduce the risk of developing cancers. The HPV vaccine is available for ages 11-26 and given in either 2-3 shots depending on the age. Even after getting vaccinated, it is advised to get screened regularly to stay away from the risk of cervical cancer.

Summary

Despite the stigma, there are many ways to deal with it and act accordingly. The first and foremost solution to that is to never feel ashamed of yourselves, and always seek necessary guidance from experts, and get yourself the appropriate help, be it in terms of screening, getting vaccinated or even in the form of strong emotional support.

References

Petry, K. U. (2014). HPV and cervical cancer. Scandinavian Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Investigation, 74(sup244), 59-62.

Cohen, P. A., Jhingran, A., Oaknin, A., & Denny, L. (2019). Cervical cancer. The Lancet, 393(10167), 169-182.

Perkins, R. B., Guido, R. S., Castle, P. E., Chelmow, D., Einstein, M. H., Garcia, F., … & Schiffman, M. (2020). 2019 ASCCP risk-based management consensus guidelines for abnormal cervical cancer screening tests and cancer precursors. Journal of lower genital tract disease, 24(2), 102

Harper, D. M., & DeMars, L. R. (2017). HPV vaccines–a review of the first decade. Gynecologic oncology, 146(1), 196-204.

Shepherd, M. A., & Gerend, M. A. (2014). The blame game: cervical cancer, knowledge of its link to human papillomavirus and stigma. Psychology & health, 29(1), 94-109.

Perrin, K. K. M., Daley, E. M., Naoom, S. F., Packing-Ebuen, J. L., Rayko, H. L., McFarlane, M., & McDermott, R. J. (2006). Women’s reactions to HPV diagnosis: insights from in-depth interviews. Women & health, 43(2), 93-110.

Waller, J., Marlow, L. A., & Wardle, J. (2007). The association between knowledge of HPV and feelings of stigma, shame and anxiety. Sexually transmitted infections, 83(2), 155-159.

Peterson, C. E., Silva, A., Goben, A. H., Ongtengco, N. P., Hu, E. Z., Khanna, D., … & Dykens, J. A. (2021). Stigma and cervical cancer prevention: A scoping review of the US literature. Preventive Medicine, 106849.

McCaffery, K., Waller, J., Nazroo, J., & Wardle, J. (2006). Social and psychological impact of HPV testing in cervical screening: a qualitative study. Sexually transmitted infections, 82(2), 169-174.

Daley, E. M., Vamos, C. A., Wheldon, C. W., Kolar, S. K., & Baker, E. A. (2015). Negative emotions and stigma associated with a human papillomavirus test result: A comparison between human papillomavirus–positive men and women. Journal of health psychology, 20(8), 1073-1082.