On the night I discovered my genital warts, I was alone in the house, and I thought I was looking at cancer. I spent a solid half hour freaking out and crying on my bed, trying to get a better view using a hand-held mirror, a desk lamp, and a series of increasingly undignified poses. The multiplicity of the skin-coloured nobbly bits growing in amongst my pubes quickly convinced me that the ‘tumors’ were spreading, and were probably taking over my internal organs already. How long did I have left to live? Would I have to get chemo? To whom could I leave my collection of diaries detailing all my teenage struggles, so I could die safe in the knowledge that the world would look past the reams of Leonardo DiCaprio stickers and recognise my journals for the great literary works they were?
When it finally occurred to me to punch my symptoms into the NHS website, just in case it might be something other than The Big C, my sense of impending doom dissolved into: Oh. And then: Ew.
My new boyfriend and I had been been doing the horizontal dance for only a month, and the NHS website stated that genital warts take at least three months to manifest, so clearly my boyfriend was not the source. I called him, and cried down the phone. How could this happen to me? I was a good person; I wasn’t one of those skanky girls. The universe obviously didn’t know how much it had cost me to tell that really fit would-be boyfriend I was getting up to fetch a condom, or how crushed I was when he said ‘Fine, forget it then,’ pulled back out, rolled over and went to sleep. And that subsequent hump-n-grind buddy had assured me we totally didn’t need a rubber unless he actually put it inside me, and I hadn’t wanted to be so gauche and pushy as to insist I knew better than he did. After all, he’d had a lot more sex than me. All I’d wanted was to not be branded as a naïve little prissy by my confident guyfriends, and now instead the universe was branding me a whore by cursing me with an STI. I was furious at the injustice, and ashamed of my apparent moral failure.
I put on a brave face for the locum GP. ‘I think I have genital warts,’ I chirped brightly. With no trace of any smile or reassurance, she asked me to remove my jeans and pants and arrange myself on the bed for an exam. I babbled with nerves while she gently probed my nether regions in clinical silence, and then told me to get dressed again. When I emerged from behind the curtain, she confirmed that I had genital warts, gave me an information leaflet and a telephone number for my local STI clinic, and politely told me that I was free to leave.
At no point did the locum openly criticise or judge, but it would be fair so say that she took her professional detachment from me very seriously.
Luckily, after that I was handed into the care of the STI clinic and the helpline staff, for whose complete friendliness and loveliness I was deeply grateful. I spent more than half an hour on the helpline, and learned all sorts of useful facts, such as:
· Warts are a simple skin infection and they do not pose any threat to health.
· They are caused by HPV (human papilloma virus), some strains of which can cause cervical cancer.
· HPV-6 and HPV-11 cause more than 90% of genital warts, but these strains are low-risk and do not cause cancer.
· Even condoms do not offer full protection from HPV, as it can be transmitted by the rubbing of skin around the genital area.
· From the point of HPV infection, warts can take up to a year to appear, or may never appear at all.
· There is no test or cure for HPV because it is a virus; therefore you can only detect and treat the warts or cancers themselves.
· It is possible to pass on HPV when you are clear of warts, meaning people can be carriers without knowing they have the virus.
· By 50 years of age, 70-80% of women will have acquired a genital HPV infection, but most never develop any symptoms and so never know.
· The immune system will usually destroy the wart-carrying strains of HPV in time, but you can never be sure – you may carry the virus for life.
· As long as the virus is still in the body, the warts may re-manifest at any time, but the longer you remain clear, the more likely the virus is gone.
I always feel much less emotionally fraught about handling the unexpected once I educate myself about the issue, so this service was an absolute godsend for me, even though some of the above news was quite clearly not good. But it was immensely reassuring to realise just how many people contract HPV without ever knowing, and that I might still have been infected even if I were using condoms (although it would have been much less likely). Armed with this information, I was able to begin processing my infection as not being a massive judgement of ‘SLUT!’ from on high, but more akin to having caught the common cold between my thighs.
I had an appointment at the STI clinic within a week, where a lovely nurse explained everything she was going to do, and why, before doing it. She also expressly told me that genital warts are very common, as well as being impossible to completely prevent, and that I had nothing to be ashamed of. I got another quick pubic exam, including having a speculum inserted into my vagina so the nurse could check my cervix. That was uncomfortable, verging on painful, but not too bad – and it was a worthwhile bonus round since they found an extra two warts up there. Then came the battery of tests – the vaginal swab test, the pee test, the blood test; checking for HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes and syphilis. Luckily for me, warts was all I had, and I thank my lucky stars I got to learn my lesson from something completely harmless, if somewhat unsightly.
Then came the really fun part.
My prescribed course of treatment was cryotherapy (freezing) followed by a three-month supply of cream to be applied twice-daily, and then a checkback to see if the warts were clearing up okay. Sometimes it can take several rounds of treatment to get rid of the buggers, and other treatment methods include surgery, electrotherapy and laser treament. I was lucky, since I only had to endure one round of lying spreadeagled half-naked on a bench, ankles in stirrups, while an unfairly good-looking male doctor brandished what seemed to be a miniature fire extinguisher at my ladyparts. (I was offered the option to request a female doctor, but I just wanted it done ASAP.) ‘Say when it gets too painful,’ he said gently, ‘and we’ll take a little break.’
The cryotherapy, I’m not gonna lie – at first it was just unpleasantly cold, but after five minutes or so it bloody hurt. Think about how your ears throb with freezing pain at the end of a long hatless walk in the wind and snow, like ice crystals are forming in your bloodstream and stabbing at the insides of your veins. It was like that, only it was on my goddamned vulva, and I was not a happy bunny. The second time I asked the doctor to stop, after about eight minutes in total I would guess, he saw that my eyes were brimming with tears and he put down the instrument. With touching sympathy, he said we’d probably done enough, that the cream would take care of the rest, and I could get up and put my clothes back on.
On the bright side, the freezing was a really good kick-start to the process. By the time I went back three months later, I’d been visibly wart-free for two weeks, and a quick internal exam confirmed that my cervix was also clear. It’s not uncommon for treatment to take six months or more, so that was really great news. I was congratulated, given a number to call if I had any more problems, and discharged without further ado.
My boyfriend, incidentally, also booked himself a checkup to be on the safe side. He was told not to be too concerned and to just keep checking himself for a while, and to come in if anything developed. We’d been using condoms, and we continued to do so until my treatment was complete, as advised. He never developed any warts.
All the medical staff I met and spoke with, apart from that first locum GP, were wonderfully warm, supportive and non-judgemental, and I moved through the system quickly and smoothly. The warts haven’t recurred anytime in the last six years, which means I am most likely free of the virus now, but I can never guarantee a sexual partner that they won’t contract genital warts from having sex with me. Predictably, the biggest consequence of it all was social – of course, the two guyfriends I’d been involved with were both adamant they were clear of STIs, that the HPV couldn’t possibly have come from them, and that they didn’t need to warn any of their other sexual partners. And the two women I lived with, to whom I told the whole story in the name of female solidarity and information-sharing, finishing up with ‘But at least it wasn’t cancer, so yay!’ – both those young women claimed in all seriousness, to my face, that they would rather have cancer than genital warts. Because good, respectable people are stricken down with life-threatening cancers all the time, but only a filthy slutwhore would be punished by the universe with an ugly and harmless STI, so better to have cancer, amirite?
Stay sexy, ladies. It’s just the common cold in your hoo-hah, and while the treatment can be unpleasant, it’s not a big deal for your health. Now go forth and wonder if you’re secretly one of the seventy to eight percent.