Knowing a few women who have gone through the endless cycles of biopsies, smear tests and treatment that we have when we suffer from HPV infection and the possibility of cervical cancer development, I have come to be really aware of how much of an impact it has on our mental health, relationships and general state of mind.
Relationships with your partner at the time
When I was first told I had HPV that my body wasn’t clearing well, and that might give me cervical cancer, I was very scared, and sad. Sad was the main feeling. I had just left a relationship where I had been cheated on, and I was already feeling low at the loss of someone who meant a lot to me, and then on top of it, I had acquired this strong HPV infection from him which was going to give me cancer?! That was quite a lot to cope with at 20, and I definitely responded to it by pushing all men as far away from me as possible, and by becoming withdrawn. I was single for around 6 months, and fell into another relationship by chance later that year. However, I really feel like it affected my ability to have faith in him – no longer was I only fearful for my mental state, but I also lived in fear for my physical health and wellbeing. I was aware that any additional cheating would threaten my head and my health, so I was partly fearful of what he could do to me and I really pulled away from him. Perhaps fortunately so – I found out later that he had been seeing a promiscuous ex who worked in the sex industry during our relationship. I definitely feel that in that first year to two years of being diagnosed with neoplasia and HPV, I was very withdrawn and felt hurt, faithless and slightly tainted by carrying a virus in me that could be so dangerous. In retrospect, I think it is actually good to go through these motions, as they do make you stronger and make you aware of what to look out for in future relationships. You can learn a lot about yourself and a lot about your partner when faced with something like this, and I think that I am now much better at dealing with my emotions and how I feel about relationships while facing the treatment for dysplasia and HPV.
Relationships with your family & friends
Not being married at the time, and being a single girl at 20 in today’s society, I definitely felt judged by some members of my family and friends when I found out about my HPV and the way it would affect my future. The truth is, we live in a society where there is a massive fail in the education system for really teaching us about STIs and cancer, and so many people don’t know or understand these things. Unless you have a biology degree, or have taken a lot of time to do your own research, it is very difficult to understand what HPV and cervical cancer are, so I think it’s important not to feel too judged by these people – the reality of it is that they don’t understand. My mum and my grandmother found out, and were confused and slightly judgemental at first, but after taking the time to talk to them about it and after teaching myself a way to explain to them effectively, they came round and were very supportive. We know that more than 70% of sexually-active women have the virus, and that we are only likely to develop precancerous cells from it if we have dampened immune systems – you’re not facing this because you have been promiscuous, dirty or stupid. You are a human, this happens, it’s ok. Making your friends and family understand this is really key, especially early on, because having their support will make your journey through this a lot easier.
Relationships with people who have cancer
I’ve had two experiences with people suffering from, or who had previously suffered from, cancer. The first experience came from a family member who had suffered from cancer, but who had come through it healthily, with the all clear. When they found out about the HPV and presence of what were then grade 2 dysplastic regions in my cervix, their response was to undermine it – to say that “everybody has precancerous cells” and “worrying about that is ridiculous”. While I knew fully that I did not, at that time, have a primary tumour on my cervix, I was aware as a scientist that there was a good chance that if I wasn’t clever about how I dealt with this, that I would one day. Hearing something like that is incredibly hurtful and it can really shake you when you’re already feeling low. However, my best advice in this instance is to be passive and “take no notice”. The reality of it is, that person is probably also still hurt and questioning their own body. Although they have no right to make you feel shitty or undermine you, they are probably only accidentally taking out their anger on you. In such an instance, you should let them be angry. However, as I was saying, just having a casual chat with them if you can, might help them to come round and offer you support in a way that could benefit you both. Stay strong, and think why they’ve hurt you in this way.
My second encounter of dealing with my own HPV/dysplasia appointments and treatment and someone dealing with cancer came more recently, at 22 when my dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer which had metastasised and spread to his liver. Nothing will really shake your family like when someone has cancer that is actively spreading around their body. I remember being so upset thinking of how my dad was feeling. I knew how I had been feeling through the HPV battle, and so I could only imagine how he must have felt 1000 times worse. I was worried about him finding out about my biopsies and attempts to go vegan and use hyperalimentation – surely he’d know how worried I was about him and myself then, and then he’d be more worried, and I’d be more worried… (and so on). I also worried about my mum – how might she react if the dysplasia had worsened. You become used to the idea that the treatment you get to remove HPV infected regions of your cervix as a last resort will make you better eventually, but other people sometimes struggle with that. The reality of it was though, that my mum had told my dad. When my results came through telling me about going from grade 2 to grade 1 in my biopsy results, my dad cried and raved about how happy he was for me and for us all. Although I didn’t have a tumour, he supported me and I believe that he took comfort from knowing that not everyone around him had a perfectly functioning body. It can be incredibly beneficial to discuss your feelings with other people scared of cancer – don’t be afraid. We are all human and we are all facing our own battles, but we need each other.
I think it is important to take the time to firstly clear your own head when you are facing the reality of dysplasia. Biopsies and treatments will hurt you mentally as well as physically, but taking the time to clear your head and really look at what you’re dealing with is so important. Yes, it is scary, but you’re aware of it and the healthcare systems in place will see you through this journey. If you know you have it, you have caught it in time before it will cause cancer. Your body is amazing and if you work with it, you will get through this (but it’s ok to cry, be angry and sad in the mean time – you’re a human).
It’s also important to remember that your family and friends might not “get it” – you might need to take some time to explain this to them, but once you do, you will most likely have gotten closer with them, and you will have the support you need. Try not to judge them too quickly or lose your patience, see things from their point of view and guide them to seeing things from yours. It will all be ok – but if you’re like me, their support will help you in a big way in the mean time.