Taking the Guilt Out Of Cervical Cancer
by Laura Dolson
In Part One of this article, I talked about HPV and cervical cancer. I emphasized how common HPV is, how easy it is to catch, and how it's not always spread sexually. But what if, after learning all the facts, you still feel guilt or shame over contracting this virus? Certainly adding these emotions to your difficulties dealing with dysplasia or cancer is NOT helpful, so let's talk about these feelings, woman-to-woman.
First of all, let's face the facts. If you had caught a virus playing checkers, not knowing that checkers harbored HCV (Human Checker-borne Virus), which turned out to be a causal factor in toenail cancer, you wouldn't be feeling bad about yourself. Sure, you might regret having played checkers at that party, but you wouldn't feel that you had done anything to be ashamed of. Somehow, though, we give a different moral weight to conditions we contract during sexual activity. We fear that others will change their view of us. We imagine our mothers sighing, "...and she always seemed like such a good girl". As if now the truth is out: we really aren't good at all.
How silly is that?
I suggest that we all take this opportunity to take a look at our attitudes towards sex and our bodies. (All you women who have no problems in this area go ahead click on something else.) We can start now to heal negative thoughts and beliefs about ourselves.
It may seem radical to say so, in this era of HIV, HPV, et al, but sex is a Good Thing. Not only is it about something as basic and life-affirming as Perpetuation of the Species (biologist Stephen Jay Gould calls humans "the sexiest primate of all") but it is about intimacy, emotional connection, and bonding. As radio physician Dr. Dean Edell is fond of saying "Sex is a Family Value". It can facilitate communication, and even be a form of communication. And, of course, it's fun! (Of course, sex isn't necessarily any of this, but I believe that most women are at least looking for these things when they have sex.)
So, how to go about changing our views towards our sexual selves?
First, take a look at the past. Many find it helpful, in dealing with negative attitudes about sex and our bodies, to look at the messages we received as children. Get out paper and pen (or word processor) and make a list. What was your parents' attitude towards sex? How did they communicate it? (Sometimes lack of communication speaks volumes!) What messages did you get from religion? School? Peers? TV? Books? Magazines?
Next, what do you think now? Take stock. How do you feel, for example, about your uterus? Remember that the cervix is part of the uterus. It's not unusual to feel more positively about our "inside parts" (ovaries, uterus) than our "outside parts" (vagina, vulva, clitoris). The cervix is the doorway between the two, really. Give voice to the part of you that thinks that having cervical dysplasia or cancer proves that you're (pardon me for saying so, but this word keeps coming up in conversations with women about this issue) a slut. It's only by really looking at our attitudes that we can begin to make some decisions about revising them.
Now, how would you like to feel about your body? I'm reminded of a story I heard from the grandmother of a 4 year old girl. One night while taking a bath, the child pointed to her clitoris and confided, "that's my BEST part, Grandma". It's many an adult woman who would do well to recapture some of that youthful enthusiasm! There are all kinds of tools available to us to help us make positive changes in our attitudes. Creative visualization techniques, and cognitive therapy to help revise our negative beliefs are two such methods.
Lastly, loving our whole selves should ultimately inform our behavior. Ideally, we eat healthy foods out of love for our bodies, not deprivation - and the same is true of healthy sexual practices. Careful choices about those with whom we entrust our intimate selves says that we are worthy of affirming, loving relationships. Although it is true that only complete abstinence will ensure total protection against HPV, we can significantly reduce the risk by limiting partners and using condoms. Teenaged girls can consider postponing sexual activity, as the less-mature cervical cells of adolescence seem to be more easily damaged by HPV. We can continue to get regular Pap testing and other recommended medical care.
Let's make a start towards rejecting the negative attitudes we've absorbed about our female bodies, and instead give a cheer for this most vital aspect of ourselves, affirming healing and growth. Whatever damage has occurred, we can begin to heal emotionally as well as physically.
Laura Dolson moderates a HPV/Dysplasia Support Forum on Delphi.
The American Social Health Association has a listing of local HPV support groups.
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