About a year ago, I entered trauma therapy. For the first time I was honest with myself about the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. It opened a floodgate and shame, disgust, resentment, and depression rushed in. I’m happy to say that today those feelings are lessened or absent completely.
I started working out a lot and traded a lot of fat for muscle. Every inch of me is now shaped differently. I’m the fittest and strongest I’ve ever been in my life. And yet I’m also sick. The stress of the past year did a number on my body. I was recently diagnosed with cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN II).
Stress can have a variety of adverse effects on health. It also happens to be associated with HPV-related health problems, which is quite common. However, too few people understand what human papillomavirus actually is. There are more than 200 different forms of the virus, some of which cause cancer. The virus is spread through skin to skin contact and cannot be prevented by the use of condoms.
There’s no treatment for HPV infection. Usually, the immune system clears the virus on its own. The problem is that while the virus is active in a the body it’s changing cells in the infected area, most commonly the cervix. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. It’s also linked to the majority of vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, and throat cancers.
Currently 79 million Americans have HPV. At some point in their lives nearly every sexually-active man or woman will contract at least one type of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 14 million people will contract HPV this year.
Some strains of the virus are more high risk than others. They can be cleared and return again and again. HPV 16 and 18 are most commonly associated with cervical cancer and they are the most difficult to clear from the body for good. Stress (as well as alcohol use and cigarette smoking) can also contribute to persistent HPV infection.
When I began trauma therapy, my high risk HPV became active in my body again. After 12 months, I still hadn’t cleared the virus, but had a normal pap smear. I assumed everything was fine. But after a follow up colposcopy and biopsy, moderate dysplasia (also known as CIN II) was found.
dysplasia – the enlargement of an organ or tissue by the proliferation of cells of an abnormal type, as a developmental disorder or an early stage in the development of cancer.
There are three stages of cervical dysplasia: mild, moderate, and severe. Severe is also referred to as “precancer” because the only thing separating this carcinoma from cervical cancer is that it is not yet invasive.
Now I’m scheduled to have surgery to remove several centimeters of my cervix, including the abnormal tissue for biopsy.
“It’s not fair,” that was my first thought. “I’ve been through a lot. I’ve worked so hard. It’s not fair.”
I’ve never had surgery before, but my recent biopsy was very painful and complicated. I’m afraid of the pain. I’m scared I’ll start bleeding again in the middle of the night and not know what to do.
I’m angry that I won’t be able to exercise for four to six weeks. I know, that sounds crazy. But it’s like telling Picasso not to paint, telling Joyce Carol Oates not to write. It brings me joy and makes me feel connected to my body in a way that I never felt before. It’s part of how I practice self-care — my body is a garden that I tend to a little bit every day.
I’m not thinking so much about immediate issues, like procedure complications, as I am about long term implications. I’m thinking about my difficulty getting rid of this virus, the failure of my immune system to protect me from recurrent active HPV. Even after the abnormal tissue is gone, the HPV will still be around, lying dormant and waiting to return when I’m stressed out. As long as I have a cervix, I’m at risk for cervical cancer.
The fact that I would be diagnosed with this condition at the point when I’m happiest in my life seems like a cruel joke. It brings up a lot of old feelings tied to the abuse. Feelings of being defective, damaged, and broken well up again. My head swims:
Will it ever go away completely? Will I ever be safe again? These are the same feelings that arise when we are victimized or revictimized. This doesn’t seem right that I feel like a victim once more.
Where is a safe space when the body itself is corrupted? That kind of thinking takes me down the path of dissociation, something that I did during the abuse. The less connection I feel with my body and my experience the more I think about doing nothing. Not having the procedure. Just turning away from treatment.
But I turn, instead, to the skills I’ve learned to ground myself, to make myself more confident of my future.
- I remind myself that challenges were going to come. Maybe this is a little quick, but no matter what, one day I would have to face something that felt this scary.
- I’m strong and that is why I can handle this. I’ve overcome much worse.
- I caught this early. What’s the point in carefully utilizing preventative healthcare if I don’t use it to prevent something?
- Self-care is more than just exercise. Physical self-care includes healthy meals and sleep. Rest is integral to recovering from surgery. Caring for myself means embracing that fact.
- Self-care is also emotional. I can continue to meditate, read, and journal. I don’t have to take any time off work to recover — and my work is very fulfilling. I won’t be deprived of any of these really important things.
One of the hardest things to accept about this virus is that it is potentially very damaging to the body and yet I can’t stress about it. The more I stress the more damage it can do. Our mindset is responsible for our health.
Embracing optimism is a large part of trauma recovery and we can create a more positive environment for ourselves through self-care. It’s important to think about what we need and what we don’t. Find the sources of negative energy in our lives and distance ourselves from those things, places, or people. Embrace that which brings joy, peace of mind, and relaxation. We should care for ourselves the same way that we would a sick friend. Self-compassion can carry us through sickness and in health, and keep us strong through the journey of life.