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Overcoming taboos to talk about sex education and HPV

HPV is extremely common, and since it is sexually transmitted, many people are reluctant to talk about it. Catherine decided it was time for her to speak out...


Who I am

Hi, my name is Catherine Coy. I am 35 years old and work in the healthcare field.

I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and was raised in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, attending public schools. Sex education in the classroom was not offered, and was a taboo subject. Since sex education and health were not openly discussed most of what I learned was through my friends and older siblings. These were not exactly the most knowledgeable or reliable of resources!


"We have the power to prevent cervical cancer through vaccination, screening, and treatment"


How I Got Here

It was not even much later in my mid to late 20s that I learned about sexually transmitted diseases and how important it is to take care and be responsible for my own health. Coincidently, it was during this time in 2006 that I also learned that I had an abnormal Pap test and was positive for a Human Papillomavirus, or “HPV” infection.


My Journey to Diagnosis

A Pap test is used routinely to screen for abnormal cells collected from a woman’s cervix, serving as an indicator that cervical cancer may be starting to develop. HPV is the known cause for cervical cancer, so with both of these results, if my HPV infection persisted, I would have cause for concern. At the time, I was unaware of what an HPV infection could lead to, or that there are different types of HPV putting a woman at higher risk to develop disease. I also do not remember being stressed or concerned, or even aware that I could have potentially had cervical cancer developing without knowing it, since often times women show no symptoms of disease, and feel perfectly healthy.

My primary care doctor at the time told me that I should have a colposcopy procedure in order to look more closely at the surface of my cervix for pre-cancer or cancerous lesions that might require a biopsy or treatment. I had a biopsy that revealed pre-cancerous cells and had an outpatient surgical procedure to remove them. I was told to keep monitoring this situation over the next few years with regular Pap screening. I didn’t really think much more about it again. I continued with the annual Pap testing until I started with a new primary care physician in 2012. After viewing the normal Pap results, she suggested that I have annual PAP testing for one more year then switch to a schedule of every 3 years.

During this same time, I was extremely conscientious about my body and well-being. I ate well, home-cooked most of my meals, exercised regularly, had a network of friends, and got plenty of sleep. While I did have the fairly normal stress of graduate school, my life was essentially happy and healthy otherwise.

I later switched primary care physicians and when I had mentioned my prior history 6 years earlier of an abnormal Pap and positive HPV result, my new healthcare provider decided to screen me again for HPV. Thankfully, this time the result came back negative, which meant my body’s immune system was working.


What's Important for Me to Share

About a year ago, I was hired at Roche Diagnostics, and attended an employee educational talk about HPV screening for cervical cancer prevention given by Dr. Ed Baker, Senior Director of Medical Affairs. He shared data about the Pap test and the prevalence of false negatives in women with disease. He also presented information about the value of knowing what type of HPV infection you have, as 2 types, HPV 16 and HPV 18, are responsible for 70% of cervical cancer cases.

Knowing my past test results it seemed worthwhile to double check my risk of cervical cancer using this latest, DNA based technology. I wanted to know if I was still at risk, and if my prior results had been accurate, and not a falsely reassuring negative answer based on the less sensitive Pap test.

When I had been previously tested I didn’t know that some labs use non-approved FDA tests and that not all tests have internal controls that allow you to be certain an adequate sample was taken, so getting a test that has these features is very important. I specifically found a healthcare provider that offered Roche’s cobas® HPV test; if I was positive for high-risk HPV, this test would also let me know if I had HPV 16 or 18, in which case there would be more immediate steps I should take to better prevent cervical cancer from developing.

I was very relieved when the results came back. My Pap was normal and my HPV result negative. I had been afraid that if I was diagnosed with pre-cancer or cancer, the treatment procedure might impact my ability to have children. Sharing my experience also seemed appropriate given my interest in the field of healthcare. We have the power to prevent cervical cancer through vaccination, screening and treatment. I decided it was time for me to speak out, since other women may have been raised in a similar fashion, with schools, family and friends unwilling to openly talk about HPV and its role as the cause of cervical cancer. HPV is extremely common, and that because it is sexually transmitted, many people are reluctant to talk about it, and often don’t acknowledge it, believing there is shame in a positive diagnosis.

I also learned of Roche’s website, hpv16and18.com, which provides a lot of information about the test, studies supporting its use as a first-line, primary screening test for cervical cancer, in front or along with the Pap test. I encourage you to use the website to get more information, and to hear more women’s stories like mine.


 "We have the power to prevent cervical cancer through vaccination, screening and treatment. I decided it was time for me to speak out, since other women may have been raised in a similar fashion, with schools, family and friends unwilling to openly talk about HPV and its role as the cause of cervical cancer."


Share your story

If your life has been touched by cervical cancer in some way, we want to hear it from you. Your personal story can help us inspire others to get tested for cervical cancer or cope with the cervical cancer diagnosis.

 

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