STD Awareness: HPV Testing vs. the Pap Test

I love writing about health and medicine, but I hate going to the doctor. I don’t like taking my clothes off for a dermatological exam, I don’t like rolling my sleeve up for a shot, and I don’t like opening my mouth for a dentist. I don’t even like having my blood pressure taken — it gives me the heebie-jeebies, and probably a case of white-coat hypertension too.


For now, pelvic exams are a mainstay — and an important part of cancer prevention.


So when it comes to something even more invasive, like the Pap test to screen for cervical cancer, I’m one of those people pining for a magic wand — a tool that a health care provider can wave over your fully clothed body to detect disease. The Pap test may have transformed a scourge like cervical cancer into one of the most easily detected and treated cancers — and for that I love it — but I still fervently wish for its demise. As long as it’s replaced by something better, of course.

Last month, an article in JAMA inspired a burst of headlines. “HPV test more effective than Pap smear in cancer screening,” said CNN. Or as WebMD put it more succinctly, “HPV Test Beats Pap.” Then, last week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their guidelines to recommend that patients 30 and older can forgo the Pap test in favor of HPV testing alone. This news might be welcome to anyone who dislikes regular Pap tests and wishes to avoid stirrups and speculums. Unfortunately, HPV tests aren’t the noninvasive “magic wand” so many of us hope for. From the patient’s perspective, the experience of undergoing an HPV test is no different from the experience of undergoing a Pap test. They both require a pelvic exam — the stuff of stirrups and speculums. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Eliminating HPV-Related Cancers

Earlier this month, every major cancer center and organization in the country released a joint statement calling for the elimination of cervical cancer, along with all other HPV-related cancers. The elimination of a large swath of cancers might sound like a tall order — so far, we’ve only eradicated two viruses from the planet: smallpox and rinderpest. And we’re on the brink of getting rid of a third, the virus that causes polio.

But doing away with human papillomavirus (HPV) would herald a new chapter in disease eradication, because HPV causes cancer, meaning that eradicating HPV will eradicate the cancers caused by it. And the good news is we have all the tools we need to wipe HPV off the face of the earth — we just need to use them.


The tools to wipe a large class of cancers off the face of the earth are right under our noses — we just have to use them.


A quick rundown on HPV is in order. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, and causes multiple cancers — cervical, head and neck, anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile. While it’s most well-known for causing cervical cancer, here in the United States it is transitioning away from its old job, causing more head-and-neck cancers than cervical cancers. Nearly all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at least once in their lives, and though only a fraction of infections progress to cancer, its ubiquity means it still causes hundreds of thousands of cancers every year. In the United States, around 41,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed annually, while more than 600,000 are diagnosed worldwide. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Fighting Cervical Cancer Across the World

Tomorrow kicks off World Immunization Week, a reminder that, just as disease can cross borders, so should our efforts to prevent it. Especially when we have an effective vaccine for one of the world’s top causes of cancer — but the people who need it most are less likely to get it.

Almost 90 percent of cervical-cancer deaths strike women in developing countries, where it is the second-most common cancer among women. In fact, over vast swaths of Africa, cervical cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death in women. (In the United States, it doesn’t even crack the Top 10.) While cervical cancer rates are holding steady in the developed world, in the coming decades they are projected to increase sharply in less developed regions.


More than 9 out of 10 cervical cancers strike women in countries with no HPV vaccination programs.


Since 2006 there has been a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer. Unfortunately, while this vaccine is making impressive strides in the developed world, it is almost out of reach in the developing world, where it could save the most lives. To fully realize this vaccine’s potential, it needs to be distributed worldwide — not just within rich countries that can afford it.

Fighting Cervical Cancer in the Developed World

HPV has been nicknamed “the common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will get it at some point. It can be transmitted by vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as by rubbing genitals together, even without penetration. HPV can cause cancers of the throat, anus, vagina, vulva, and penis — but is most “famous” for causing cancer of the cervix (the tissue that connects the vagina to the uterus). If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active, and get vaccinated against HPV before becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you’ll maximize what modern medicine has to offer. Continue reading

Best of the Blog: 2017 Edition

It’s been a rough year. Ever since the 45th president was inaugurated in January, we have been pushing back against attempts to overturn the rights of women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized populations. Racist and xenophobic voices have been emboldened by an administration that validates their hatred and minimizes their violence. It feels like the progress we’ve been making in advancing reproductive justice, gay rights, trans rights, and voters’ rights has stopped dead in its tracks.

But 2017 was also a year that shook many people out of their complacency — and re-energized longtime activists. January’s Women’s March may have been the largest protest in our nation’s history. Throughout the year, we rose up and shut down Republican attempts to destroy Obamacare, setting the stage for November, when enrollment records were shattered. A year after the gut punch of the 2016 presidential election, women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, and immigrants enjoyed well-earned victories across the nation in the 2017 elections. We need to keep working — staying on this trajectory can turn the tide in the 2018 midterm elections if we take control back from the legislative branch and douse the executive ego with a bucket of ice-cold water.

Our bloggers have been with us every step of the way, whether they are on the front lines of the fight to keep lifesaving laws intact and hold our culture accountable for its multifaceted bigotry, or helping to keep members of the resistance (and everyone else) healthy, informed, and compassionate in this new era.

Rachel kept close track of Republicans’ attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act throughout the year. Pre-ACA, insurance policies could employ sex-based discrimination, refuse coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, kick people off their plans, and not cover essential services that keep people healthy. Each attempt revealed its creators’ wish list for destroying health care. In 2017, our activism worked, but the fight isn’t over, and we must remain vigilant. Stay tuned throughout 2018!

Matt has been watching the growing, right-wing extremism at the crossroads of racism and misogyny, a subject he covers in his response to the violent events in Charlottesville in August. Matt’s piece explores a political force that has put racial hatred on full display, but also one where misogyny resonates in a culture of disaffected — and often dangerous — men. We need to be intersectional as we fight for justice for everyone who is marginalized by white supremacist extremism.

Amanda observed American Heart Month by sharing the story of the sudden, heartbreaking death of her mother, who lost her life to a heart attack. As you mull over New Years resolutions, consider that heart disease is a top killer in the United States, but you can make lifestyle changes to help prevent it. The best gift for those you hold closest to your heart is to keep your heart healthy and strong, and Planned Parenthood Arizona provides care to help you maintain your heart’s health!

Gene made a slight departure from the blog’s mission to provide good guidance for readers to take care of their sexual health — his favorite post highlighted some of the most ridiculous things you could do for your sexual health. Whether he was lampooning stick-on condom alternatives, labia-sealing tampon alternatives, or egg-shaped rocks made to be inserted into the vagina, Gene took on some of the Internet’s looniest ideas surrounding sexual health and the human body.

Anna has been writing about sexually transmitted infections since 2011, and has become increasingly sensitive to the stigma surrounding these infections — and how people often internalize that stigma. Pairing STDs with fear and guilt has compromised medical care for generations. Folks who worry that the HPV vaccine or pre-exposure prophylaxis encourage promiscuity borrow century-old arguments from opponents of condoms, antibiotics, and other STD prevention methods. We think you’ll learn a ton of fascinating tidbits from this article!

Anne traveled all the way to Washington, DC, to meet lawmakers and represent the one woman out of every three who has had (or will have) an abortion. In a country that is becoming increasingly hostile to reproductive rights, we need people like Anne to put a face on abortion, a legal medical procedure that most of us have colluded to keep taboo. As Anne put it, “We were all darned tired of being characterized by ignorant anti-abortion advocates as shadowy, irresponsible, hypothetical women. We’re real people.”

Serena observed National American Indian Heritage Month by shining a spotlight on the little-known, shameful history of forced sterilization of Native American women. More recently, Native women’s control over their fertility has been further impeded by the Indian Health Service’s inconsistent access to emergency contraception and refusal to provide access to abortion. The ability to control our own bodies is essential to our dignity and self-determination, and it must not be abridged, whether it is interfering with our ability to have children or our ability to prevent or discontinue pregnancy.

Pride paradeCare observed Pride Month by remembering Pride’s roots. For a lot of us, Pride means parades and parties, but these annual celebrations didn’t originate that way — Pride Month commemorates the Stonewall Riots, which erupted 48 years ago. Care explains why the current political climate makes remembering Pride’s roots of the utmost importance. We need to stay vigilant, because when it comes to keeping and expanding the rights of LGBTQ people, and ensuring their safety and dignity, we’re all in this together.

Harvey MilkKelley, Planned Parenthood employee and honorary blogger, celebrated Pride Month by introducing us to Harvey Milk, whose call to LGBTQ people to “come out” led to a seismic societal shift, as hearts and minds were connected through empathy and storytelling. Today, we’re calling on you to take the torch of pioneers like Harvey Milk and keep fighting for LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice — for human dignity, bodily autonomy, and love.

STD Awareness: Is HPV Now a “Men’s Disease”?

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is most notorious for causing cervical cancer — making it, in many people’s minds, a “women’s disease.” But this gender-blind sexually transmitted virus can cause cancer in any cell it infects, and is associated with cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, and mouth and throat — aka oropharyngeal cancer.

While oropharyngeal cancers used to be caused mostly by tobacco, as people quit smoking an increasing proportion is caused by HPV. In the 1980s, only 15 percent of oropharyngeal cancers were caused by HPV, but nowadays the virus is behind 70 percent of them. A 2011 study predicted that the number of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers will surpass cervical cancers by 2020.


HPV is rapidly gaining prominence among men.


It’s only 2017, but we’re ahead of schedule. Earlier this year, researchers reported that, in the United States, oropharyngeal cancer is more common among men than are cervical cancers among women — and oropharyngeal cancer rates are increasing in the male population, while they are relatively stagnant among women. These rates are projected to continue climbing, which will skew oropharyngeal cancer even more heavily toward the male population. But, in the public’s imagination, HPV is most well-known for its association with cervical cancer — while most people haven’t even heard of oropharyngeal cancer.

Oropharyngeal Cancer and HPV

Oropharyngeal cancer can strike the inside of your mouth and throat. Risk factors include tobacco (including cigarettes, snuff, and chewing tobacco), marijuana use, alcohol, and oral infection with HPV. HPV can be spread by most sexual activities — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as “French kissing” and rubbing genitals together. There are many strains of HPV, which come in two main categories: low-risk HPV, which can cause genital warts; and high-risk HPV, which can cause cancer. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Something good is emerging from the horror that is Hurricane Harvey — a Texas clinic is offering free abortions to women affected by the storm who may have missed appointments or had their finances severely impacted. Their help will be “financial and logistical” and includes helping women travel to one of their clinics in the state. (Vice)
  • Another piece of good news? Planned Parenthood and the developers of the HPV vaccine will be recipients of one of the nation’s most prestigious prizes in medicine! (NY Times)
  • Betsy DeVos is probably going to ruin any progress currently being made with regard to sexual assault on school campuses. (NPR)
  • Count me as one of the black women who think it’s time for the monument of J. Marion Sims in New York to come down. He is often flatteringly referred to as the “father of modern gynecology,” but he was actually a sadistic monster who performed genital surgeries on black women (whom he purchased as slaves) without anesthesia. (Essence)
  • Anti-choice lawmakers’ attacks on abortion clinics have been sadly very effective. Fifty-six independent abortion clinics have closed over the past two years, and 145 have shut down since 2012. (Rewire)
  • Kentucky could definitely be a casualty of this trend. They could soon be the first state in the country with no abortion clinic. (Reuters)
  • Birth control is good for many things: preventing babies, regulating periods, preventing ovarian cysts, managing endometriosis … and now we learn oral contraceptives are also tied to lower rheumatoid arthritis risk! (NY Times)
  • A Texas judge temporarily blocked a law that would have banned dilation and extraction abortions in the state. (The Cut)
  • Awful news: A 10-year-old Indian rape victim gave birth after a court denied her request for an abortion. (WaPo)
  • An “activist” Ohio Supreme Court judge spoke at a pro-life event and now refuses to recuse herself from a case that could close Toledo’s only abortion clinic. (Jezebel)
  • Anti-Abortion Activists Are Using Down Syndrome Parents to Argue Against Women’s Rights (Double X)
  • More black women are using PrEP as a way to protect themselves from HIV. (Real Health Mag)

STD Awareness: Prevention vs. Punishment

Before antibiotics, syphilis could kill and gonorrhea was responsible for most cases of infertility. Both diseases could spread from husband to wife to baby, potentially destroying families. So you’d think medical breakthroughs in prevention and cures would be welcomed with open arms.

The actual history, like the humans who create it, is much more complicated.


Compassion, rather than fear and guilt, should guide medical practice.


During World War I, sexually transmitted diseases were a huge problem — second only to the 1918 flu pandemic in the number of sick days they caused (7 million, if you’re counting). The Roaring Twenties saw a sexual revolution, and by World War II, the military was once more fretting about losing manpower to debilitating infections that drew men away from the front lines and into the sick bays.

The armed forces did what it could to suppress prostitution and distract soldiers with recreational activities. But the human sex drive could not be contained: The vast majority of U.S. soldiers were having sex — even an estimated half of married soldiers were not faithful to their wives during WWII. Victory depended on soldiers’ health, so during both WWI and WWII, the military provided its sexually active soldiers with “prophylaxis,” medical treatments that could reduce risk for venereal disease — or VD, as sexually transmitted diseases were called back then.

Anyone who thinks condoms are a hassle or “don’t feel good” should read medical historian Allan M. Brandt’s description of a WWI-era prophylactic station, which soldiers were instructed to visit after sexual contact: Continue reading