Dr. Jackie Walters, OBGYN, star of Bravo's Married to Medicine and author of The Queen V: Everything You Need to Know About Sex, Intimacy, and Down There Health Care, is shedding light on HPV, following news that Fox Business Network anchor Gerri Willis underwent a hysterectomy due to the infection.
“If you’ve been diagnosed with HPV [the human papillomavirus], you are amongst half of the people in the United States of America,” Walters tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There’s been a stigma attached to it because it is from sex. So with Gerri sharing the fact that she is HPV-positive, and deciding to do the most definitive management is an awesome share.”
In January, Willis published an op-ed stating that she was having a hysterectomy (the removal of the uterus) after pre-cancer cells developed in her cervix from the virus HPV-18. The 60-year-old, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 lobular breast cancer nearly four years ago (and is currently breast cancer-free), was wary to open up in a public manner.
“...After all, HPV is transmitted by sexual contact,” she wrote. “It’s embarrassing. Not the topic of polite cocktail chatter. I didn’t want our Fox family to think less of me.” However, Willis decided to share because “One, the HPV infection can be prevented with a simple inoculation of Gardasil. The CDC recommends children aged 11 to 12 receive the shots. That’s a solution as simple as a trip to your primary care physician’s office to protect your kids.”
Calling HPV is “as common as rainwater,” Willis added, “The CDC says that nearly all American men and women will get some strain of HPV in their lifetime. That’s a lot of ticking time bombs. The good news is that most of these strains are harmless. But for a few of us who contract HPV, one of nine cancers threaten. HPV is the culprit in 35,000 cancer cases diagnosed every year. More than 9 of 10 cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV.”
Willis said that a routine PAP smear detected her pre-cancerous cells. “Please, take my advice, ladies,” she wrote. “I know it can be hard to find the time for these simple tests but your life may quite literally depend on it.”
The anchor revealed that a hysterectomy had been scheduled for that week. “I am upbeat and optimistic because this surgery is preventative,” wrote Willis. “I’m in front of the curve this time in my fight — being treated before an actual cancer has time to develop. So, I’ll see you in a few weeks. Don’t worry. We’ve got this. But do me a favor, take care of yourself and your family. HPV is a cancer you have tools to fight.”
Walters tells Yahoo Lifestyle there are “probably 40 or 50” different types of HPV, with 20 considered high-risk. HPV 16 and HPV 18, she says, cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers. “So when women are diagnosed with HPV, the first question’s always, ‘How did I get this?’” she says. “If you’ve had more than one sexual partner or your partner has had more than one sexual partner, it has come from that circle.”
The doctor explains that because HPV can stay dormant for many years, it’s possible to never see symptoms until later in life. If a pap smear comes back abnormal for HPV, a patient will get a colposcopy, which is a test using a camera-like instrument. “And if we see abnormal cells...we take a biopsy of that because your pathologist can give you a definitive diagnosis...”
If the results indicate a “high-grade lesion or cervical cancer,” says Walters, “then you get to decide if you want to remove your uterus and your cervix.”
“Cervical cancer is such a slow-growing cancer that it would be very unlikely to see you go from a normal pap to cancer within a year,” she says. “It’s believed that if you had a negative HPV in the last year, it’s unlikely you would see anything develop in the next 3 to 5 years.”
Guys are affected too, although they may not know it right away. “Men don’t have an itch, a bump, a sore, a lump or anything until it’s really far advanced,” says Walters, citing rare instances where HPV can develop on the vocal cords. She adds that HPV can lead to penile, scrotal, anal or rectal cancers.
Walters recommends that every girl and boy needs to be vaccinated, given from ages 9 to 45. “Moral of this story is, make sure you’re getting your testing.”
Jackie Walters’s The Queen V: Everything You Need to Know About Sex, Intimacy, and Down There Health Care is available at Amazon.
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