There’s only five reasons that I can think of in which you would not freak out over receiving an abnormal pap smear:
- You’re in a coma and aren’t aware that you have an abnormal pap smear.
- You’re more worried about navigating a post-Apocalyptic world filled with flesh-eating zombies and you just don’t have time to worry much.
- You have short-term memory loss and can’t even recall what you did two minutes ago.
- Your test results got mixed up with someone else’s and your doctor calls you to tell you about the debacle and reassures you that your cervix is A-Okay!
- Or you’re like me, and an abnormal pap smear isn’t so abnormal to you any more.
If you ever receive a pap smear and it comes back as abnormal, I want to say now — it’s okay if you freak out. It’s okay to run to Google and look up what that means, stress out, get anxious, and even cry. That’s what I did.
I received my first abnormal pap smear in 2012, and like any young woman might do, I freaked out. I went straight for Google which might not be the right thing to do, but I did it. Up until then, I am sad to say that I didn’t even know what a pap smear actually was or did or looked for. I knew I had to spread my legs, the OBGYN went in there, got some samples from God knows where and sent the samples to a lab. A week later I received a letter or a phone call giving me the thumbs up and I went on my merry business until the next year when I had to return to do it all over again.
It’s sad to say that I was never really taught why I underwent yearly pap smears, that is not until I got a pap smear that was “abnormal.” Oh, the “a” word — abnormal. It was a scary word, one I hadn’t heard before until the gynecologist at the health center at my university at the time called to give me the news. When I asked why it came back abnormal, she told me she didn’t know and that I’d have to find a gynecologist at a large clinic to find out. Yeah, that didn’t help — not being told why, not being made aware of what it could be. It just made the freak out all that much more worse.
I called my parents, feeling a little ashamed and scared. Neither were really aware what it meant, especially not my mom who had never gotten an abnormal pap smear in her life. So I found a gynecologist at a local women’s hospital in Oklahoma City where I was living at the time and we did another pap smear only to learn what I already knew — something down there was “abnormal.”
Around this time, I started to finally learn what an abnormal pap smear could mean. See, a pap smear is a screening procedure meant to take cells off your cervix and tests them for precancerous or cancerous cells. Now, I know that freaked you out — you’re being tested for cancer! Well, yes, but an abnormal pap smear doesn’t necessarily equate with having cancer. It generally means that you have a vaginal or cervical infection.
After doing some more tests, I learned that I had HPV, a virus that was causing the cells on my cervix to change. There’s over 100 HPV strains and even with the shots, you’re still at risk of contracting the virus through sex — even if you use a condom. It’s estimated that about 75% of the population has HPV at one time, so be aware that this isn’t something unique — it’s pretty common. When I finally learned of this, I felt a little better, but I was still freaking out because unlike most people, my HPV had progressed a little beyond what is normal. And yes, that freaked me out.
But the real truth is that I would have freaked out regardless if my abnormal pap smear was abnormal because of a simple infection or even with what it ended up being. Like I said, I wasn’t well educated on pap smears, women’s reproductive health, or even what HPV was — even though it clearly affects a huge part of the population. Fear of the unknown is all too true and if we begin to educate ourselves about women’s health, I think it can make for less “freaking out” when things like abnormal pap smears arise.
Secondly, I remember feeling ashamed for getting an abnormal pap smear. I kept it hidden for a little bit until I couldn’t take it anymore and broke down to some co-workers at a bank I worked at. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only one at my small bank who had had an abnormal pap smear or who had contracted HPV. Rather, I quickly learned then and over the next few years that most of the women I knew had received abnormal pap smears at least once in their life — but no one talked about it!
There’s this societal norm that tells us not to talk about women’s reproductive health. Some of us are told to feel ashamed about it, brought up to be scared about it, or raised in environments where its never talked about and therefore it is never normalized for us. So when we get abnormal pap smears, us women just don’t discuss it. And that’s a problem. We need to talk about it. We need to vent over it, cry together about it, and provide each other with understanding support when it arises among us. Why? Because it helps minimize the freaking out when we know that our friends, our sisters, our mothers, our aunts, our co-workers, and our neighbors have dealt with it too and are still healthy and fine and living happy lives.
If you are among my tribe of women who get an abnormal pap smear, know that you are not alone. Know that its okay if you freak out and get scared — there is absolutely nothing abnormal about that. We deserve a moment to freak out and go through the emotional process of dealing with new knowledge about our bodies — that’s okay! But also know that — yes, I’m repeating myself — you are not alone. You will be okay. And there are thousands (okay, billions) of us who have gone through the exact same thing and we are much closer to you than you might imagine. So open up, talk about it, educate yourself more on what it means — because that’s the only way to move past the freaking out stage.
(In case you were wondering, I’m okay! My cervix is fairly healthy. Long-story short, my body fought off the virus, it came back, and then it fought it off again. I got my first normal pap smear in December of 2016! Yay me!)