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October 25, 2013

Most. Awkward. Second. Date. Ever.

It was bad enough when Rachel Heller discovered she had HPV. Then she had to tell her new guy about her status.

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HPV

Photo Credit: Guy Aroch/Trunk Archive

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How you dress for a date on which you plan to tell the person you're falling for that you have an incurable sexually transmitted infection? I went with sensible leather flats that would transport me back to my car quickly in the Los Angeles twilight, after his inevitable "I can't see you anymore"; plain gray trousers that would modestly sheath my thighs in his presence; and an old striped top with tiny moth holes near the collar and hem, faded and worn-out, like I'd surely feel later that night. Usually I'd put more effort into my appearance for a second date. I'd comb straightening serum into my hair and swab shadow onto my eyelids. I'd wear a shirt that didn't have holes in it, at the very least. But why bother? He was going to dump me anyway.

I was once optimistic about dating. Though never a 10 on the self-confidence scale (or even—let's be honest—a perfect seven), I had enough strength to believe that the right guy would overlook my flaws. My chronic lateness? No problem! My braying anxiety? Not so bad!

But HPV is different. It's not a personality quirk I can explain away or an endearing habit a man might learn to love. It's a disease, one with symptoms that range from embarrassing to deadly—in some cases, genital warts; for high-risk strains, the possibility of cervical cancer. Some treatments can even lead to infertility. And on top of that, it's contagious.

When my doctor first told me I had two strains of HPV, low-risk (the warts) and high-risk (the cancer causer), I was struck speechless. It was the day after my 24th birthday, and I shivered on the examination table, a paper gown across my lap, clenching my knees together as my cheeks flushed red. How had this happened? I could count my sex partners on one hand. Yet after a certain point, I had trusted each enough to skip using a condom. One must not have known he was infected. So there I was, stumbling out of the drugstore into the blinding afternoon light with an expensive tube of ointment in my purse, specially formulated to kill rogue skin cells in my body's most tender region.

For weeks after my diagnosis, I wallowed in a sullen bog. Given the numbers, you'd think that I wouldn't feel so alone: HPV is the most common STI in the U.S. Most sexually active adults get it at some point, with nearly 60 million women—38 percent of the entire female population—infected at any given time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But while 90 percent of HPV infections go away within two years and never produce symptoms, mine didn't. Small, whitish bumps mottled the inner folds of my vagina every few weeks, and my abnormal Pap smears led to two painful biopsies to study precancerous cells. I had to hum to drown out the sound of my gynecologist snipping off bits of my cervix with long, snub-nosed scissors. In the seven days until each of my test results came back negative, purple shadows formed under my eyes and I bit my nails down to the quick.

Prodded by friends, family, and my mother's polite request for grandchildren, I eventually worked up the nerve to start dating again. I filled out an online profile and soon found myself trading e-mails with a bumbling, sincere computer programmer named Mike, who admitted a weakness for Hello Kitty, chili fries, and rare birds. Near the end of our second marathon phone call, he said, "At this point, I wouldn't care if you had two heads." What about an STI?


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