On Valentine's Day in 2019, I arrived at Sydney's Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, a specialised cancer treatment hospital, for diathermy — I was having abnormal cells zapped out of my cervix with a small electrical wire loop.
I thought it was funny. The doctor double-checked I really wanted to schedule my appointment on the most romantic day of the year and I shrugged, "Sure, I won't have any plans anyway."
My standing Valentine's Day date as a single woman has been to watch Kill Bill: Volume 1 with my other single (and some less single) friends every year. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a feminist masterpiece and I defy you to feel anything but empowered after watching Uma Thurman slice and dice for 111 minutes.
But I decided to put off our annual Kill Bill viewing to look after my sexual health/so I could in all honesty tell people that on Valentine's Day at least someone got to spend time with my vagina. It just happened to be a medical professional performing a necessary surgery.
My memory of the day extends mostly to being in a waiting room, then in a hospital bed, and the anaesthetist counting me backwards and saying something about a gin and tonic. Before I knew it, I was awake, in a hospital gown, scoffing down a sandwich so my mum could take me home.
Why am I telling you this? Because it's Cervical Cancer Awareness Week and you need to go get a Cervical Screening Test if you are over 25 and haven't in the last five years. In 2016, 889 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in Australia, and, in 2018, 232 people died from the illness, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
I had a Cervical Screening Test in 2018, a few months after I returned from two years in the UK. My last Pap before I went overseas showed at worst low grade changes to the cells in my cervix, but by the time I returned I not only had HPV but an abnormal growth of cells, a high grade squamous intraepithelial lesion, on my cervix.
Certain strains of HPV cause those abnormal cell growths, and, in turn, cervical cancer. But usually it takes more than two years for changes within the normal range to develop into high grade cells (if they ever do! Some will go right back to normal over time!), and it takes about 10 years from there for those cells to turn into cancer.
In the time that I'd been away the guidelines for testing and the test itself in Australia had changed, from a Pap smear to a CST, which actually tests for HPV as well as abnormal cells — the Pap only tested for precancerous changes to cells. The age at which the screenings started increased from 18 to 25, and the time between tests from every two years to every five.
When my Pap found high grade changes to cells in my cervix, I was sent for a colposcopy to access the situation more fully. It feels like a more uncomfortable CST, with a camera thrown into the ix. It involves injecting medical vinegar into the cells of the cervix, with particularly damaged cells changing colour to white, and an iodine solution stains normal cells black and abnormal cells yellow.
Then your doctor knows how to proceed — either with regular appointments to check on the status of the abnormal cells or with treatment. The doctor told me it was unlikely my cells would ever return to the normal baseline on their own, so it was decided that I'd be treated with the LEEP procedure, where a thin wire loop carrying a high frequency electrical current removes the abnormal cells from the cervix.
My LEEP surgery went off without a hitch, the doctors letting me know afterwards that I could just come back in a year for another colposcopy. I was told to take ibuprofen or paracetamol for any cramping and told that it was normal to have a brownish vaginal discharge or small amount of spotting for the next two to three weeks.
For the next two weeks, I couldn't have sex, use tampons, take a bath or go swimming, or engage in strenuous exercise, and I was warned that my next period may be early, late or be missed completely.
I returned to Lifehouse this February for another colposcopy to make sure my cervix was still free from abnormal cells. From now on, until I'm HPV free for two years in a row, I have to get a Cervical Screening Test every 12 months. Yes, you read that right, your immune system can get rid of HPV like it does any other virus.
It all seemed scary and overwhelming at the time — I cried a lot about the original diagnosis, spooked by the idea of a colposcopy, and then the LEEP procedure. But I empowered myself to learn all I could about what would happen to my body, condensing it all into this story for PEDESTRIAN.TV.
When the story was published, I quickly found out that a lot of other women had the same experience as me, but that we just don't talk about it enough. Since 2018, more and more people have told me about their own CST experience and I've described the colposcopy as best as I can — it's a little uncomfortable and you can choose to watch the camera footage of your cervix if that's interesting to you. Instead I just talked the ear off of a kind nurse, who listened politely while I talked about Honey Badger dumping two women on The Bachelor.
Whatever you choose to talk about while a doctor forages around your cervix, none of the procedures are as scary as they seem in your head. And they're things women do every day in order to stay on top of our sexual health — before we become part of the cervical cancer statistics.
I know you've been putting it off, so go on, make an appointment for your Cervical Screening Test. At the end of it all, you might even end up with a date for Valentine's Day.
To read more about cervical cancer prevention, head to the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation website here.