Abnormal is never a word you want to hear in relation to your health. Essentially, the entire construct of normality is highly subjective – however certain facets of health leave no room for grey areas. This is my story of cervical cancer scares, fertility fears, and taking charge of your health – all sparked by an abnormal Pap test.
Earlier this year, my husband and I decided that we were ready to start a family. Due to my health consciousness (and slight touch of hypochondria), I was always diligent with my annual physicals – but this year, I was excited to get it over with. I expected the usual all-clear that I received every other year, and was anticipating the journey to parenthood.
It was that word – abnormal – that woke me up from my baby bump dreams. Weeks after my annual physical, and weeks into blissfully goin’ half on a baby with the hubby, I got a call from my doctor advising that my Pap test results were abnormal. The tentative diagnosis was high-grade squamous intra-epithelial lesion, or HGSIL. To confirm, further testing and biopsy via a colposcopy was scheduled.
A week later, I had my appointment with an OB/GYN specialist. He explained that HGSIL was a specific level of cervical cell abnormality (also called cervical dysplasia), and could be caused by the common HPV virus. My levels had somehow reached the tipping point of malignancy, and while this was not a full-blown cervical cancer diagnosis, I was dangerously close. Under normal circumstances, he said, a repeat Pap test would have been done. The concern was that I had always had normal Paps (including last year’s test, which showed no abnormality), but over the last year my cells had rebelled at an alarming rate.
I settled back onto his examination table and dutifully put my feet in the stirrups, ready for my colposcopy. This procedure was like a high-tech Pap test – the doctor swabbed my cervix with an acidic solution that would enable any lesions to turn white for clear imaging. Speaking of imaging – the entire process was televised on the doctor’s flat screen TV, allowing me to watch the whole thing. Side note: seeing your cervix on a 50-inch TV is definitely an experience. The acidic solution eventually confirmed the presence of a large lesion, and the doctor proceeded to take four biopsy samples, which hurt much less than expected. 15 minutes later, I was dressed and done. Now, the doctor said, we wait.
Waiting was torture. What if the biopsy revealed that I had already developed cervical cancer? I had to continuously stop myself from drowning in WebMD and Mayo Clinic articles, and had to stop asking “Why? How?” As per doctor’s orders all baby-making plans were on hold, so I wondered what exactly was in store for the near and distant future.
Finally, my biopsy results came in. The lesion was pre-cancerous, but still concerning enough to require surgery. My birthday found me back on the specialist’s table, undergoing an outpatient procedure called a LEEP – loop electrical excision procedure. The procedure uses a low-voltage wire to cut away tissue under anaesthetic, and took about 20 minutes to complete. The rest of my birthday was spent in a groggy, crampy fog, but I was glad the worst was over.
Subsequent follow-ups have confirmed that the LEEP removed the abnormal lesion, and I now have a happy, healthy cervix! I continue treatment with shots of Cervarix, a vaccine that my doc said is often prescribed to women who have not had HPV vaccination, but develop cervical dysplasia. Cervarix helps to protect against HPV 16 and 18, the two strains that lead to the majority of cervical cancer diagnoses. Cervarix also helps to boost immunity for women who have undergone treatment for cervical dysplasia, so my health-conscious self did some research and decided to go for it.
Goin’ half on a baby is hereby postponed until early next year, after I’ve had my last Cervarix shot and my next colposcopy. Life is funny, isn’t it? It has a way of taking note of your plans, then pulling out its red pen – making edits, additions, and deletions to what you thought was going to happen.
Overall, this experience has taught me that being diligent and proactive with my health is my greatest tool. A skipped Pap test this year could have spelled disaster for me the next go-around – while my situation was rare, there’s nothing like being on top of regular care. Do not neglect your health – ensure that you follow through with regular check-ups, and don’t delay an appointment if you notice something is off. Learn as much as you can about your health – ask every question that comes to mind and use your resources to educate yourself, without delving too deep into worry. Know that you’re not alone – I didn’t know of anyone who went through anything like I did this year, but once I opened up and shared, I realized there were many of us in similar boats.
Approximately 12,000 women in the US are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually, and 4,000 die from the disease – but you CAN protect yourself by being informed and proactive. Normal is subjective – but there is nothing subjective about your cervical health.