Tamika Felder's Story

Taking the Shame Out of HPV

As told by Tamika Felder

I learned about HPV shortly after I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. My doctor wasn't really even talking to me as he flipped through my chart and said something like "oh you probably have HPV (types)16 or 18." My first reaction was "What is that?" But at that point I didn’t say anything – it was bad enough just knowing I had cancer.

Yet, at the same time, I knew I was a smart, educated woman. I worked on a health show on TV, so why had I never heard of HPV?

After my appointment, I went home and got on the Internet, started Googling things and ordered literally every related book Amazon.com had to offer. I made a list of questions and kept talking to my doctors until I felt all of them were answered. As everything became clearer, I experienced a mix of emotions: shocked, angry, ashamed, devastated. In many ways, I felt I was "less" of a cancer patient because my cancer is linked to a sexually transmitted virus. It sounds so "high school," but at first I was afraid no one would like me; I thought, "who is going to be my friend after this?"

But there was also this feeling that I needed to learn everything about this virus and tell other people, especially since I now knew that HPV is something practically everyone gets. Through my research, I found out about the HPV test. Although it was too late for me, I was overjoyed to know it gives women accurate results about whether you have HPV, unlike the Pap alone, which is all I got. I think the HPV test should be mandatory for all women over 30!

The first people I told about my cancer and HPV were my three closest friends, Felicia, Angela and Quan. They were all very supportive and understanding. After that, I told my family, but everyone reacted differently. Some had questions and others just wanted to be there to hold me and wipe away tears. I felt scared telling them, but relief at the same time – keeping the secret did nothing but eat at me inside, like I had something to be ashamed of. And I now knew I didn’t.

After all this, I have built a great relationship with my doctors and still talk to them about HPV, but I think my situation is rare. I think some doctors believe women don't want to know about HPV, so they don’t bring it up. But I disagree. I think doctors should be more upfront. Women want to know about their health and what’s happening in their bodies (and men want to know too!).

So my best advice for women concerned about HPV is to first understand it, talk to your doctors and find people who can support you. Hiding it made it seem bad to me, like I actually had something to hide. But as I talk and educate women, I make the virus just a part of my story, and for those who say something I don’t appreciate, I tell them to get better educated!