Thursday, 15 December 2011

Sex and Cancer

This is one of those posts in which I have to remind you that I am not a doctor.

When I was a teenager, I read in "Seventeen" magazine that sexually active teenagers and women over 18 were supposed to have regular pap (or cervical) smears, but I never read why that was exactly. The reason why is that vaginal sex can give you a virus called HPV which can go on to give you cervical cancer. If you have a regular pap (or cervical smear) regularly, doctors can see if you have cervical cancer sooner rather than later.

This is probably the tenth time I've written this, but the scientist Natalie Angiers wrote in "Woman: An Intimate Geography" that the very scary thing about HPV and cervical cancer is that condoms don't seem to prevent them. The more men you sleep with, whether or not you use condoms, the more likely you are to get them.

Meanwhile, I know that a teenage girl is especially vulnerable to contracting HPV and other diseases because the walls of her cervix are not very thick yet.

Here is something my friend Hilary recently wrote about sex and cervical cancer.

(Blogger doesn't seem to be working properly right now, so I can't embed it.)

Please read it and then come back for my following remarks. (By the way, I can't get youtube, either, so I have no idea what video Hilary has up.)

The first thing I have to say is that it is disgraceful that nobody warned my mother's or my or your generation that "free love" was potentially lethal and that even the almighty condom can't stop all venereal diseases. The only excuse for the enablers of the sexual dissolution that I can think of is that they simply didn't know: never before had so many women slept with so many men. I suspect they know now, which is why various public health bodies are so keen to inoculate as many 15 year old girls as possible against HPV.

The second thing I have to say is that a hysterectomy should not signal the end of matrimonial hopes. Not all men long to have children. Some never really think about them, and some have had children in first marriages or earlier relationships, and some discover at the age of 50 that although they'd like to get married, they would be relieved to be married to a woman who, barring a miracle, wasn't going to have children herself, e.g. a woman their own age. That's not selfish; that's just the reality of many men over 50.

Meanwhile, as women over childbearing age marry or remarry, I don't see why a woman with a hysterectomy might not marry or remarry, too.

The third thing I have to say, and this is not in criticism of Hilary, who has written a generous post, from a place of illness, disillusionment, fear and pain, and it is that it is in general a bad idea for an unmarried Catholic woman to write on the internet about her past sexual sins, no matter how far in the past they may be.

Long-time readers will remember how I discourage female readers from revealing whether or not they are virgins to anyone other than their doctor or their date-has-been-set-hall-has-been booked fiances. Your virginity or lack thereof is nobody's business but your own, and for various reasons (freaking out the sensitive, gossipy friends, creepy virgin hunters, "how come you would for him but not for me?", etc.) you should keep it to yourself.

But I will also say, as I have said many times before, that you should also keep a lid on the sexual sins of your past life because they freak out religious men, particularly younger or less sexually experienced religious men. Men's imaginations are on a hair-trigger where sex is concerned anyway, and so if they discover the girl they really like has been with some other guy, their imaginations go wild. They torture themselves wondering who and what and where and when, and they feel competitive and jealous and potentially inadequate and generally awful. And they occasionally (often?) move the Publicly Known to Have Slept Around Girl off the Potential Wife list, no matter how humble and contrite she might now be.

And so another lie of the sexual revolution is revealed. Not only can sleeping around end up in cancer, a lot of good young men still feel uncomfortable knowing that women they might bring home to their mothers have slept around. Yes, never-married girls do have to tell their fiances whether they are virgins or not and if they have an incurable sexual disease, but I cannot think of any man not your doctor or your very trusted confessor who needs to hear about your past sexual actions.

And if you and/or your fiance has been sexually active, make sure you both/he gets checked out for HPV* and any other sexually transmitted disease before you get married. After that, it's a regular pap (cervical) smear for you. Life is hard, and in many ways the sexual dissolution made it harder. As Sister Wilfreda said back in Grade 9 religion, "Sin has its own built-in punishment."

Update: Actually, it seems that men cannot be tested for HPV. This is not good news.

Update 2: A handy article from Uncle Sam. Read all the words.


Natalie said...

What if the man you hope to marry has been exposed to HPV, or has another venereal disease from a pre-conversion past? If that comes to light while you're seriously dating (though not at all sexually active together -- he feels you should know this if you're thinking about getting married, not in a "confess past sins" conversation, but in a "reasonable disclosure before we both get required tests" conversation), how do you proceed as a Catholic woman?

Seraphic said...

I'm not sure I understand the question.

Of course a woman needs to know if she is running a risk of getting a venereal disease from her husband when she marries. It would be an outrageous crime if she weren't told.

Of course he should be tested for STDs and not consummate the marriage until he is found free from disease, unless he has an incurable disease like HIV or herpes at which point the couple needs to talk to a doctor.

But as for proceeding as a "Catholic woman", I guess that depends on what her deal-breakers are. There are men who are determined that they will marry only a virgin, and that is their choice. And I suppose that there are women who are determined to marry a man who has never had sex, and that is their choice, too. But a woman who loves and wants to marry a man who has been around the block is certainly free to do so, as long as neither he nor she is married to someone else.

After a certain age, I suspect many (if not most) Catholic men (cradle, convert, revert) have been around the block anyway, so limiting your choices to men-your-age-who-have-never-had-sex is rather limiting.

But, once again, any woman is free to reject a suitor for any reason, and if the Catholic woman doesn't trust her suitor to remain faithful to her, than that's a prudent reason to break up.

Clare said...

The good news is most men recognize that Catholic women of a certain age are also likely to have been around the block in one form or another, especially if they live mostly in secular society.

Very few men are determined to marry *virgins,* and the ones who are are generally creepy anyways, so I don't think it need be much of a worry. Cervical cancer, pregnancy, and the fear of offending God are much more fret-worthy.

fifi said...

Heard a fascinating spot with a virologist on NPR recently. They are actually discovering that more and more viruses are linked to cancer, not just HPV. The theory is that viruses can go deep into your body, camp out, and lie dormant for years before they start to cause cancer and other health problems. This may be one reason why cancer runs in families, who live in close quarters and often share bouts with the same virus. The doctor fully admitted that people who remain chaste have a lower risk of cancer, because intercourse is such a great way to pass viruses around. And they know very little about viruses and how to combat them. Bottom line, keep a healthy immune system so that your body recognizes and fights viruses naturally, and save sex for marriage.

Hilary's blog post is very sad. I want to send her, and women like her, comfort. (The kind of comfort in Isaiah this Advent). We serve a God who brings good out of evil, and the Christian life is about making something beautiful out of the ugliness of sin. We all sin, and we all deal with these problems, but that's not the end of the story!

Let us love and support one another!

Natalie said...

I'm sorry about the confusing wording! What I meant to get at was the deal-breaker aspect of venereal disease. It's not something you hear Catholics talk about much, but surely it's something that afflicts many couples, who've been around the block, as you say, at any point in their lives. When you said in the initial post that couples should be tested before they get married, I didn't know if you were suggesting that they not get married if one of them had something incurable like herpes, or if you just meant that both people need to (of course) know full well about their fiance's status with venereal disease before marriage.

Seraphic said...

Aha! Now I see. No, the reason why they get tested is to abstain and be treated if they have a curable disease and if they turn out to have an incurable disease to give the other the choice of whether or not they wish to take the risk of being exposed to the disease.

Apparently a significant percentage of the population of herpes; however, it can be managed, and there are safe periods among outbreaks, but again, anyone in that situation would want to talk to a real doctor about that.

Me, I just mean that both people need to know whatever they need to know to ensure their own health and to ensure the health of their fiance. I wouldn't suggest anyone dump their fiance(e) at the altar because the poor thing had or had had a VD. Disease is disease, and nobody would dump someone they loved for a cold sore, for example.

Juventutem London said...

Last time I checked, men can't be tested for HPV.

Seraphic said...

Just googled, and it appears you are right. So there is no way a man can tell if he is going to inadvertently kill his wife one day. How nice.

Seraphic said...

Sorry--that was a little bad tempered. Men don't get cervical cancer, and women who have it have the choice of being mutilated or let to die.

Occasionally I have a reader who writes in that she is so repulsed by men who have had sex that her mother (et alia) is afraid she will never get married. And then I write about forgiveness and tolerance and social pressures on men to have sex. But today I have discovered that having sex with a man who has had sex outside of marriage can actually, literally, lead to cervical cancer, and that makes me very unhappy for the women of the world.

The two comforts are that the fewer men a woman sleeps with the less likely she is to sleep with one who had contracted HPV and that regular screening can catch the first signs that HPV-caused cancer has arrived.

Maggie said...

Let's also not forget that one of the many charming side effects of the Pill is that it thins and weakens the mucous linings of the cervix, making a Pill-user more susceptible to VD. So, if a woman who was a virgin married a man who was carrying HPV from a past relationship, if they used the Pill, her chances of getting cervical and other HPV-related cancers are up even more.

Pope Paul VI, if you're in heaven already, pray for us!

Rachael said...

This is also an option. The choices are not merely the stark ones of "being mutilated or let to die."

Natalie said...

Ah, thank you for explaining. Totally agree. And though a man can't find out if he actually carries HPV, he can find out (sometimes) if he's been exposed, and can pass that information on to the woman he hopes to marry. And if she hasn't had reason to get vaccinated, she at least has the chance to do that before getting married.

I know of a really sad situation where one man was linked, without doubt, to a number of women's irregular pap smears and subsequent treatment -- they were in the same social circle where this information was shared, and ended up confronting him about it. Terrible, but now he knows.

Natalie said...

(Oops, comments in between my reply--meant to say thank you, Seraphic, for explaining about VDs + full disclosure + marriage.)

Just Another Catholic Girl said...

A word in regards to Cervarix and Gardasil.... they are still very new as of yet, and some adverse reactions have been found related to them such as infertility, seizures, and in some cases even death. And they still don't know if there would be any long term effects from it. I'm sure those percentages are very slim, and every vaccine or medication have risks, just research before getting it. I personally wouldn't unless maybe I might be marrying someone who could possibly be a carrier.

Anne said...

I felt really sad when I read that article because it seems like she is blaming herself for her cancer. I might have misread it. I do understand what she is trying to say, and I think her points about our actions affecting us in many ways we cannot know about in the future are very important. But as far as why one individual gets cancer at a certain time, we really cannot know. Cancer is such a burden (understatement) I hate to see her add any additional difficulties by blaming herself for it. I wish her strength and healing and comfort. No one every deserves blame for cancer. Wishing her peace and blessings.

Anonymous said...

You said to read all the words on the link. The ones that stood out the most:

- girls and boys can receive the vaccine as early as nine. Nine!

- it doesn't protect against all cervical cancers

So why all the pressure in US & UK to give this to children?

isabella of the north

Mrs Doyle said...

In Australia we had a publicly funded Gardasil program for women between a certain age and being into prevention, I agreed.
Then, I read all the objections people had to it (valid, but not in my case) and then was made to feel really guilty for having it done.
I then spoke to a friend about it - a qualified nurse and midwife - and she mentioned that although I wouldn't be putting myself at risk from pre-marital sex and being infected with HPV that way, I don't know what history my future husband might have, and by having the vaccine, I've protected myself against that. Ok, it's not going to cover 100% of all HPV strains, but most of the big ones it does.
I did feel less foolish after that and I am glad I've had it done.

In regards to a comment made above as to the causes of cancer, there seem to be two 'types' - one environmental and one linked to DNA (there are obviously overlaps to this). The DNA type cancers are thought to be linked to one gene not having a double copy of itself and therefore prone to a weakened immune system. I saw a brilliant program on the black plague where they dug deeper - it was so fascinating.

Anyhoo, good post Seraphic!

Seraphic said...

I received an excellent email arguing for the vaccination, and if I get permission I will post it.

I have to admit that I myself am nervous about new technologies, and I do not have tons of faith in a medical establishment that seems allergic to advising teenagers not to have sex. Instead they offer "magic bullets" which cost money and turn out, when you read the small print, not to be 100% effective.

But that said, and given the fallout from the past 50 years of sexual permissiveness, I think it worthwhile for parents to sit down with their children and as much information as they can get and talk about the vaccination.

Seraphic said...

Anne, Hilary is convinced that HPV is the only cause of cervical cancer (and it seems it may be true), so that this was something she could have avoided. However, Hilary doesn't blame herself as much as the hippy lifestyle in which her parents were embroiled when she was a child.

The culture lied to her mother and it lied to Hilary.

I am reminded of the Biblical laws against pork and shellfish and how these reflected the living conditions of desert life: given the dangers of eating pork and shellfish in desert conditions, it is no wonder abstaining from them became law. And perhaps we are finding out now why ancient communities also had prohibitions against sex before marriage: perhaps it wasn't, as secular feminists say, a way to control people. Perhaps it was a way to keep them healthy and happy.

Maggie said...

When I was an undergrad, one of my professors was part of the research group that did preliminary development on the HPV vaccine. I was in her course the semester it was released, and she was quite proud of it (understandably. New vaccines are the product of years of ingenuity and darn hard work, most of it fruitless and frustrating). We all received free Gardisil pens and were told how amazing this new vaccine was.

I do remember, very vividly, reading one of the articles about the clinical trials for the vaccine. During the earliest phases the researchers were looking at demographics to see what sorts of women (age, race, class, etc.) were at highest risk for the disease. HPV did not discriminate - wealthy or poor, educated or not, black or white - it did not matter. However, the most interesting thing was that one of the control groups of the experiment - that is, nonvaccinated women - was a community of nuns (in Latin America somewhere, where the study was conducted). It was a rather sizable community too; I believe membership was in the dozens of sisters. Every single nun was HPV free. Every single one. Now, HPV can be inherited from one's mother/etc, but by and large the most common way it is transmitted is through sex. What did the nuns have in common? They were virgins.

I found this so amazing. No sex, no risk of HPV, no need for vaccination. Presumably, if everyone practiced chastity according to his or her state of life, all married couples were faithful, etc., STDs would not exist because there would be no way to transfer them (it is no longer the Eighties; blood transfusions causing infections are no more)

Anne said...

Thanks Seraphic for your response. I see this differently now. I see her post as taking an opportunity to educate other women about potential consequences. And that is a very brave thing to do. Unfortunately, women tend to bear the harder burden in these instances (i.e. they are more at risk for more serious diseases). Women need to educate each other (and men). The only way the culture will change is by our doing it. And that takes one person at a time. Including your brave friend.

fifi said...

Talk of getting the HPV vaccine makes me nervous, personally. I am not a doctor, and I can certainly understand the concern of a woman whose future husband may have been exposed to the virus. That is a terribily difficult situation, and I certainly would not want to judge anyone who has gotten it already, for reasons they thought were good ones. Everyone must follow their own conscience on this issue.

However, the thing to remember about vaccines is they they produce an artificial immunity, not a natural one. Viruses, as one other commenter alluded, are basically DNA, wrapped in a sheath. We still don't know a lot about them. When you are vaccinated, the virus in the vaccine is injected into your body, and your body does not mount the strong immune response that it naturally would, if it encountered the virus, say, via bodily fluid, saliva, etc. Instead, it has an artificial response which is not nearly so reliable: this is why you need booster shots, or can still get some diseases even if you have been vaccinated for them. In other words, if you are a virgin committed to chastity but your fiance has a Past, you may not be protected even if you get the vaccine. However, that virus from the vaccine is now lurking in your body... hopefully weakened and doing it's "job" of keeping you healthy, but there is a lot of controversy about this.

Mandating the vaccine even for very young children is another matter entirely, and to my mind akin to the push to provide condoms to teenagers so that they will be "protected," ignoring the fact that this "protection" is unreliable and provides a false sense of safety under which kids simply have sex more recklessly. But I am sure most if not all of your readers would agree to that.

It is a very tough issue, and I am still forming my own opinion right now. I am not a doctor or a nurse, as mentioned, but I can't see the wisdom of fighting a virus, which can go into your body and create havoc in ways we don't yet fully understand, by putting another virus into your body.

Betsy said...

I am very frustrated by the fact that we are never told that sleeping around can cause serious health problems, no matter what precautions you take. We're told, "No, it's okay if you just use a condom" or "No, it's okay if you get this vaccine." WHY can't the medical community just come forward and say,"Casual sex is always going to be risky. If you don't want STD's, practice abstinence." I don't think this is honest or fair to the teenagers who are only told to be "careful," instead of,"Don't have sex."

I hope this doesn't sound mean or anything. I just feel so terrible for people (like your friend, Hilary) who had no idea that they were doing something dangerous, because they were told that it was okay. I just wish that this information were common knowledge for teenagers.

Praying for Hilary.

Maggie said...

The cynical answer is, "Because there's a lot of pressure for them to *not* state the obvious. The abortion (and other) industries don't make money if people aren't having sex. Their lobbying efforts are insane. They like their status quo and will fight to the death to keep it.
Lord have mercy.

Betsy said...

If true, that is a terrible injustice. I really hope that money isn't the reason for all this suffering and illness.

Maggie said...

Have you read Unplanned by former Planned Parenthood employee Abby Johnson? She is very candid about how when she moved up in the ranks at PP, she was told to reduce the number of contraceptives given out because they weren't profitable like abortions. It's terrible, terrible, terrible.

Betsy said...

Ouch! No, I haven't. Abortion is so upsetting to me that it's hard for me to read about it. That's so sad, though. I'll definitely be praying about this.

hilary said...

I thought about it long and hard before I wrote.

But the fact that it is cervical cancer and that there is only one way to get that particular form of cancer are already public knowledge. So anyone who reads me and is capable of adding two and two would have already made the connection.

Also, it really needed to be said and coming from me in my current circumstances I thought would add some weight.

I might also add that if a man were interested in me at this stage of things, I would bet dollars to doughnuts he would be the sort of man I would never want to marry. A bit of backward logic, I suppose, akin to the Groucho Marx joke that he wouldn't want to join any club that would stoop to having him for a member, but there it is.

Seraphic said...

Yes, it needed to be said, and I have been waiting for you to say it, so that I could follow up. (Big difference between you making a public service announcement and the average 25 year old who needs to CONFESS ALL to her boyfriend of two weeks.) It was a shock to me to discover that cervical cancer was not just one of those genetic things, and I was angry that women of our generation WERE NOT TOLD.

As for marriage, now is obviously not the time to be pondering marriage or offers of marriage. But as you have many loyal friends whom you admire, it is not beyond the scope of human imagination that you might meet someone you admire who thought marriage to you would transform his life.

I'm just throwing that out as a human possibility to ponder when you're in the mood for it. It might come to pass, and it might not. I don't know. I just know that I don't believe either a hysterectomy or the menopause cancels out forever the possibility of marital love.

Lena said...

Another great post, Seraphic.

Virgins, no matter what age, should not be on the show Virgin Diaries on TLC in America. It was a very awkward show because it's such a personal subject.