The ghost that haunts my family by Kate H.

Kate and her mom

Kate and her mom

Cervical cancer is in my genes, and it’s a ghost that haunts my family. I feel like this is the time to tell my story, and how it led me to Planned Parenthood.

That’s because I just turned 38. And when my mother was 38—and I was just 11—she died of cervical cancer, leaving six children behind. Many women in her family also died from cervical cancer, and while most people know that the HPV virus can lead to this type of cancer, fewer people are aware of the genetic risks. Women whose mother or sister have had the disease are between two and three times as likely to develop it, according to the American Cancer Society.

I visited her grave recently, in a tiny town in northern New England. And while the circumstances of my life different than most Planned Parenthood patients and volunteers, they are also a powerful example of why the health services Planned Parenthood offers are so important.

I grew up in a cult, a large one with communities around the country. It was very religious. We didn’t have health insurance, so nobody got checkups. Babies were usually delivered by other women within the group, and as I grew up, I myself assisted in delivering hundreds of babies.

In addition to her living children, my mom had a series of five miscarriages toward the end of her life, which I believe were due to cancer. But it wasn’t until just after the birth of my youngest brother that she finally got care outside of the cult, and was officially diagnosed. She died within the year.

We weren’t allowed to know she was dying. In fact, the group’s leaders lied and told us the reverse: They said God was healing her. When she died, we weren’t even allowed to attend her funeral—it just wasn’t the way this group did things. My father, still in the organization, couldn’t care for us, so they split us up and sent us to different families all over. I wound up living in homes in Canada and California, but spent most of my young adult life in the Boston area.

By the time I was 30, I knew I had to escape. My arranged marriage was wrong for me for many reasons. But it was hard to leave. They told me I’d go to hell. I had been home-schooled, just as I was home-schooling my three kids, and an important lesson to control us, reinforced over and over, was that we could never make it on our own in the outside world. The decision to break free was terribly difficult, but I did it. 

I found a friend on Cape Cod who had left the cult two years earlier, and she let me and my children stay with her for about five weeks. I contacted my father-in-law—who was not part of the organization—who helped me get enough money together to rent a place of our own. As soon as I could, I enrolled to get my GED, and once I got that, started attending a community college near Boston. My first year, I achieved a GPA of 3.8, and I dreamed of going to medical school. I earned scholarships because of my high marks.

But realistically, as I continued school, I discovered I couldn’t do that—studying that hard is just too difficult when you’re also working and raising three kids. It was taking too much time away from my family.

I decided to move to Maine, so my kids would be closer to their dad, who has also left the cult. They are now 15, 10 and 13, and doing great, and are supportive of my studies. I am working on my undergrad degree, and hope to go on to graduate training and become a physician’s assistant when I’m done.

I’ve met someone wonderful, and we plan to marry. But when I found out I was pregnant, which was unintended, I knew I didn’t want to continue the pregnancy. I had an abortion at Planned Parenthood, and while I had heard of it and was always intrigued, that was the first time I experienced the wonderful care it provides firsthand. The healthcare providers took such good care of me during the counseling and the procedure itself, and I didn’t feel judged or shamed about my decision.

Shortly after that, a Planned Parenthood employee gave a guest lecture at a class I was taking in medical ethics, and that was eye-opening too. Until then, I was not fully aware of the other services Planned Parenthood offers, including screenings to prevent cervical cancer. As a course requirement, we needed to do some volunteer work, so I signed up. I only needed to do a few hours, but I’ve stayed on ever since. I’m upset about what’s going on politically, with so much legislative effort to take funding away from people who use Planned Parenthood for birth control, cancer screenings, and more. I feel I have to help defend it.

It’s one of the ways I try to honor my mother. (Another way is that we’re planning to get married on 8/18/18, to commemorate the anniversary of her death.) If she had known there was an organization like Planned Parenthood that could have diagnosed her cancer early enough for her to be saved, it would have changed everything for her, for me, and for my entire family. If she had had access to affordable pap tests, she’d be here today.

I want to make sure women everywhere—including low-income women, women living in difficult circumstances, like my mom, or anyone else—all women—have access to the care they need. Everyone should know about the health services they can get at Planned Parenthood.

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