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My shame over having an STD is one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with

And I’ve had cancer.
photo of a woman laying in a field
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Seventeen years ago, I stared up at the ceiling tiles of a colorless doctor’s office, with my legs spread and my feet in stirrups while the nurse practitioner examined the bump on my vagina.

“Oh, it’s just a wart,” she said nonchalantly. My face flushed and tears welled up the moment the words left her mouth.

She went on to explain that it was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and assured me that nearly every sexually active person my age had it, or would at one point, as if I was going to be fact-checking this with any of my friends. The shame sunk in immediately, like hot, thick lava inching through every vein in my body.

“But I’ve never had sex,” I said quietly. She asked if I’d ever had intimate skin-to-skin contact, and I was immediately embarrassed that I had never thought of sex as anything beyond penetration.

I was Cersei Lannister from “Game of Thrones,” walking through Kings Landing naked while a voice said, “Shame, shame, shame.” The voice was my own.

My shame over having an STD is one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with
Me in my 20s, around the time I learned I had HPV. It's the most common sexually transmitted infection, but I still felt so ashamed.

The truth was, I was afraid of sex. I’d been taught growing up, by my parents and educators, that the purpose of sex was procreation. The act out of wedlock was a sin. There was no discussion of pleasure or enjoyment — apart from the time my dad gave me “the talk” when I was 12 years old. He told me how great sex was and that it was something you shared with one person, when you were married.

My virginity was a remnant of my Catholic upbringing and a shield to my grief — something I could control when so much of my innocence had been stripped the day my mother died of cancer 10 years prior. Sitting in that doctor’s office at 25 years old, I was no longer Catholic, but I’d made a promise to my dying mother that I wouldn’t turn to sex, drugs or alcohol when things got difficult.

So with my good, Catholic-schoolgirl facade, I clung to my virginity and participated in other forms of sexual activities like oral sex and skin-to-skin contact, which is how I contracted HPV.

My biggest fear in life became anyone discovering my dirty little secret, which I held close. The isolation nearly destroyed me.

What ensued was years of painful treatments, including surgery, to manage the warts, and crippling loneliness, even though the nurse practitioner gave me clear statistics that proved I was not alone. I confided in two girlfriends, but beyond that, my biggest fear in life became anyone discovering my dirty little secret, which I held close. The isolation nearly destroyed me. I deemed myself permanently damaged goods and was convinced no one would ever love me again.

I now know that’s not true. What is ironic about the shame I felt is that, according to the National Cancer Institute, HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active people are expected to be infected at some point in their lifetime. Around half of those diagnoses will be high-risk HPV, which can cause several types of cancer. I’m grateful that there’s now an HPV vaccine that has helped reduce the number of HPV-related cancer cases.

While HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are dozens of others — and it’s important to break the stigma around all of them. I don’t ever want anyone to go through what I went through. Here are a few things I think we can do to combat that: 

  • Teach comprehensive sex education to young people, not just abstinence.
  • Talk with your partner(s) before becoming sexually active. Get tested regularly for STDs and use protection.
  • Women, go to your annual checkups with your gynecologist for your Pap test, which tests for precancerous or abnormal cells that could lead to cervical cancer.
  • Speak up. The more we share our stories, the more we normalize STDs, and the easier it will be for all of us.

For me, my shame began to take a toll on my mental health. The warts had been clinging to my body for four years when I finally sought therapy, by recommendation of my gynecologist. I spent four months working with a cognitive behavioral therapist, and the warts finally went away, never to return.

What did return was my confidence, and I began to tell my family and friends what I’d been hiding for so long. All of them were devastated to learn I’d carried that secret alone. Nine out of ten friends I spoke with admitted that they’d been diagnosed with HPV at some point, too. Most had never told a soul.

Stories like mine are common but rarely told. A few years after the warts went away, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, ocular melanoma, unrelated to the HPV. Just like when my mom was sick, the support from my friends and family was humbling and unwavering — a stark contrast to the shame and seclusion I felt when dealing with HPV. It made me wonder, why are some of us allowed to get support through illness and others are left to suffer alone?

I learned that while these seismic life events shaped me, they did not define me. I’d always been open about the loss of my mother. I was open about my cancer journey. I decided I wanted to do more with my STD story. I heard about a bill being debated at my state’s capitol to require comprehensive sex education if a school was providing sex education. When faced with your own mortality, you realize that nothing in life is so awful that it can’t be spoken aloud. I testified on public record about my lonely and harrowing experience navigating an STD. The bill passed.

STDs are diseases, just like cancer. When I think back to the hardest things I’ve faced in my life, it was community and openness that made them bearable. It’s so easy for us to show grace to the person suffering from a loss or battling cancer. Why aren’t we showing that same grace to each other — and ourselves — for things like STDs?

If I could go back and talk to my 25-year-old self I would tell her, “You are worthy. It’s not your fault. Let go of the shame."