It was as painful as this: I was ushered in by a nurse singing to the tune of Copacabana, “Welcome to the colpa, colpacabana,” and before I knew it I was ascending toward Planned Parenthood's ceiling in a chair not unlike a dentist's, thighs spread and cervix in scope. Before it was all over, my cervix had been compared to pink Barbie shag carpet and I had listened to one and a half Enya CDs. Ah, the joys of a colposcopy, a procedure where a device called a colposcope is used to magnify and illuminate the cervix (the “neck-like” area that connects the bottom of the uterus to the vagina). This procedure is performed to examine if pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions have developed on the cervix, lesions caused by high-risk HPV, Human Papillomavirus.
How did I get to this point, legs locked in steel stirrups, a cold steel clamp shoved inside me, a trio of medical professionals sticking their heads in between my legs? Well back in January I went to Planned Parenthood for my annual exam and Pap smear (for those who don't know, an exam recommended for all who are sexually active or over 18 that screens for abnormalities of cervical cells). All went about as usual, the nurse practitioner told me my uterus was “cute,” and I went home satisfied with the health of my reproductive organs. However, two weeks went by and I received the dreaded call from Planned Parenthood—I had an abnormal Pap test, which could mean one of two things—either the test was inaccurate (often they can be) or I have HPV. So they sent my test results to be tested for HPV, and a few weeks later, I received a letter from my doctor. The letter was only two or three sentences long, reading something to the effect of, “You have tested positive for high-risk HPV, the type of HPV that causes cervical cancer,” followed by the doctor's signature. So naturally I freaked out. I called Planned Parenthood and made the requisite follow up appointment for a colposcopy and possible biopsy (where they cut of a small piece of the tissue from the cervix to test it for malignant cells).
Though I knew that I wasn't alone, that HPV is all too common, that in fact an estimated 50 to 60 percent of sexually active college-aged females have similar strains of HPV, according to Planned Parenthood, I was still terrified of that letter and the possibilities it implied. After all, there was still that one tricky word in that letter, that two-syllable possibility of cancer. Even though I knew only a very minute percentage of those diagnosed with high-risk HPV actually develop cancer, I called one of my best friends looking for comfort. Instead of comforting me, she freaked out too. In our minds, we both secretly imagined the terrifying possibility of my cervix becoming a crash pad for wayward pre-malignant/malignant cells, a sort of freeloading and free-loving commune where these lethal carcinogenic cells would populate my cervix faster than spring rabbits in Bellingham.
But as the weeks went by and the reality of my colposcopy appointment drew nearer, I researched high-risk HPV and spoke to several girl friends who had been through the same procedure. By the day of my appointment, I had come to peace with my cervix and whatever cells may have occupied it, and I was ready. A close girl friend came with me to my appointment, and trailed behind me as I followed the singing nurse down the sterile corridor. The colposcopy room was separated from all the others, and true to the nurse's song, had a sign posted on the door that indeed said, “Welcome to the Colpo-Colpo-Cabana.” And it was surreal—Enya was playing out of a small stereo perched up on the countertop by the doctor's sink. An examination chair sat in the middle of the room. Directly above the chair were hand-crafted tissue paper flowers that hung from translucent thread from the ceiling. As I sat in the chair, disrobed save for the hospital gown, a nurse elevated the examination chair so that I began to ascend toward the ceiling, toward the descending paper flowers. With Enya soothing her way through the background, the doctor examined my cervix. And the doctor did tell me it looked like pink Barbie shag carpet. Apparently my cervix is so pink, lush and healthy looking that the doctor just had to call in another nurse to take her turn peaking down the colposcope, gushing over my insides.
Eventually, after the cervix adoration stopped, the doctor decided to take a biopsy because my cervix did have some visible HPV cells.
Two weeks later, like clock-work, I got another call from Planned Parenthood, but this time the test results were negative—I still have high-risk HPV, but I don't have pre-cancerous or cancerous cells occupying my cervix. And though I'll have to get a Pap smear every six months now, instead of just once a year, the doctor did tell me that the virus will most likely go away on its own, like most HPV infections do, within a year or so. And for the next year or so I guess I'll have to live with the stigma of having an STI, an STI that about 50 to 60 percent of us all share. I just hope that other women in my same position won't be terrified of the whole experience, and will embrace the colpo-cabana, for the sake of their own health.