It Beats the Alternative

It Beats the Alternative LEAD

I’m Kristen Ashley, and I have abnormal pap smears.

Did you wince when you read that?

Considering this event in the life of a female is no fun for anyone, and also not often discussed openly, are you now certain that this is not a piece you wish to read and do not intend to do so?

I cannot encourage you enough not to quit reading. I want your attention. And you need to give it to me.

You see, I have been having abnormal pap smears for years. My gynecologist is aggressive, determined not to let anything get out of hand. But each visit, the results were not too concerning and I’d get a call that says, “It’s not okay, but it’s nothing to worry about right now. We’ll keep an eye on it.”

This happened so often, every six months for years and years, when my gynecologist phoned, and phoned, and phoned, I ignored it because I get so many damned robocalls (and I hadn’t programmed in her number). But I finally saw she left several messages (these, too, are usually left by robocalls, so I don’t check).

Her message was that she needed me to phone her, and I thought I’d get the same results:

“It’s not okay, but it’s nothing to worry about right now.”

I did not get that result.

I spoke with my doctor and she said she wanted me in ASAP to discuss my results and what we were going to do about them.



My doctor is the bomb. And sitting across from her at her desk, she was no less the bomb, talking in scientific terms at first, then dispensing of them and sharing that I had “high-grade precancerous cells” and we needed them out.


No other recourse.

They had to be burned or sliced away.

No more sitting and waiting.

They had to go.

My mind was in tumult.

My insurance sucks. No way around it, this was going to be a costly endeavor. I’m busy. No way around it, I didn’t have a couple of days for a surgery and recovery. My niece was getting married and we have in our lives four people we care about who are battling cancer, two of them terminal, and I could not talk to my family about this because I did not want to worry my niece, or any of them, during this joyous event.

And I had “high-grade precancerous cells” in my body.

I’m not a wuss. I’m a grin-and-bear-it type of person.

But this scared the freaking crap out of me.

I selected the sliced-away procedure, which was outpatient at a hospital, but the cell tissue under it would be intact (rather than burned) and they could test it to make sure the cells didn’t dig deeper.

I selected this because I wanted that shit gone, and I wanted to be sure it was gone, even if this procedure would be a little more involved.

And after some time of keeping this to myself, I had to tell my sister. I needed that. I needed a ride to and from the hospital, for one. And I just needed my sister.

I told very few other people. Very close friends. My agent.

At first.

As the procedure came closer, and the wedding was behind us, I told my family. More close friends. People I trusted.

And then I really started opening up and told anyone who would listen. The urgent care nurse who I saw about an ingrown toenail (by the by, her friend was going in for the same procedure in a week, and her friend was terrified). Kai, my waxer at the wax salon.

As I shared, five or six woman I told had had the same thing. The same type of cells. The same procedure. Some of them years ago. Some even decades.

Fast forward to August 27. My surgery day.

I learn five things during my brief stint at the hospital.

One, I have an athlete’s resting heart rate, which is fascinating to doctors and nurses, so I had frequent company in recovery.

Two, hospital staff, from the lady who registered me, to the recovery nurse, are amazing. Efficient, professional, but most of all, kind.

Three, men are babies. I had men on either side of me in recovery and they had those nurses racing around like crazy people, whining and moaning, while I lay there (when I was not sharing with a doctor I did not run the New York marathon, I just, apparently, have a super chill heart), watched all the activity happening in the hall and experienced an exceptionally rare couple of hours where I had nothing to do but chill out (that said, I’d had no food or caffeine so chilling out got boring and I needed coffee).

Four, donuts post-op are exceptional medication.

Five, I love my sister more than my own life.

The days that followed, I experienced cramping, bleeding, then spotting. It all happened as they said it would (and it still is, to the writing of this article). Not immense or intense, which of course meant my brain said I could go on as normal, so I washed windows and the like, only to begin cramping in earnest as a reminder to take it easy.

But it hit me.

Of the fifteen or so females I shared this with, five or six of them had this procedure, some of them dear friends, and I didn’t know.

Now, I’m not someone who demands your medical history upon first meeting.

But, why do we not talk about this?

I was scared. Honest to God, for the first time in my life, terrified of my health and what was happening in my body that I could not control. And this wasn’t even the big C-WORD. This was the pre-C-word.

And if I did not get regular well-woman checks, the results would have been dire.

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women. This has declined significantly in the last 40 years due to women having regular pap smears. All women are at risk. Yes, all. And long-lasting infections of HPV are the leading cause of it. (source: CDC)

Why did you need to read this story?

That CDC paragraph is why.

Because we need to talk about this.

Because women need to know how frighteningly often this happens, but if you catch it early, you can do something about it, and decades later, it’s a story in your life, it is not the end story of your life.

Because you need to have regular well-woman checks with your gynecologist, and if you don’t, you need to pick up the phone and book one ASAP. And then you need to continue to see her (or him) as they prescribe. This is not just about cancer of the cervix; this is about consistent screening of our lady bits, all of them, including our breasts.

Last, if you haven’t, you need to get vaccinated for HPV. But if you have HPV, and you don’t go see your gynecologist regularly, you need to get on that…immediately.

My lab results came in a couple of days ago. All the bad cells were contained in the specimen they took. Even if this is by far the usual result of this procedure, my relief was so extreme, I didn’t even know what I was feeling. I have post-op appointments and will have an even more aggressive schedule of pap smears for the next few years.

And yeah, pap smears are really no fun.

But I am…so…freaking down.

Because this is the definition of “It beats the alternative.”

Now, I invite you, encourage you and even beseech you to beat the alternative with me, sisters.

Make the call today.


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