Cervical Health Awareness Month: A Caretaker’s Journey Catching up with Holly Rasmussen
How did you become a caretaker of a person who has been diagnosed with cervical cancer?
My mother is a cervical cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed in 1998 with a stage 4 inoperable tumor when I was nine years old. We lived in a very rural area four hours away from the hospital where she had all her other treatments. We lived in a very small town so there wasn’t a lot of access to healthcare and it really kind of fell on us, the family, to be the caretakers. My dad was always working so it was left up to me to take care of my mom. I have one brother who is older than me, at the time he was 10 and I was nine.
What has been your experience as a caretaker?
When my mother was first diagnosed, it seemed as if those with cervical cancer weren’t as supported as people who had other cancers. She also has breast cancer and when I was growing up, people who had breast cancer received a lot more support. Or if you had lung cancer or whatever other cancer you had, I think people were more open. But because she had cervical cancer, which is specifically related to HPV and sex, it wasn't talked about a lot and that had a lot to do with her being from a very conservative area. She has said she really felt ashamed, as if people were judging her and saying ‘oh, that's like a sex-related cancer, almost like a sexual transmitted disease. She felt a lot of shame for that.
What are some important takeaways you have learned through your journey as a caretaker
I think the main thing I have learned is the education piece because HPV cancers are the only cancers that we can completely eradicate via a vaccine. Had that information been available to her, she could have gotten that vaccine if it was available to her when she was younger, and that could have avoided her cervical cancer diagnosis.
In fall 2022, my mother and I attended the St. Jude and Cervivor -- HPV Cancer Survivors School. Since then, we have talked about HPV and cervical cancer a lot. I think the more we talk about it, the better off everyone is because more people are aware. My son is going to be nine in a couple weeks, so he'll be old enough to get the vaccinated. I plan on getting him vaccinated. To think that all of this, 20-plus years she's been sick, it all could have been avoided with access to a vaccine. No one else would have to suffer the way that she has suffered.
In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers to HPV vaccination or cancer prevention?
I am from Senath, Missouri. I think specifically in rural communities where I'm from, there's two things: One is the vaccination hesitation because people are especially hesitant to get the COVID vaccine, for example. Recently, people are hesitant to get any vaccine. And then second is where I'm from people are very religious and conservative. Because the HPV vaccine is related to sex, a lot of parents are afraid or don't want to get their children vaccinated. They either think, ‘Well, my kids are not having sex anyway,’ or they think, ‘Well, if I bring that up and we start a conversation, then my kids are going to start asking questions and more likely to have sex.’ I think religion and conservatism plays a major role in decision making, specifically in this part of the country. There were no doctor’s offices where we were from. When I was growing up, we had to drive 30 miles just to go to the dentist or a regular doctor. I know South Carolina is doing this thing where they partner with the schools and are administering the vaccine in the schools, and I wish we would do that in Missouri.
Why is it important to you to spread awareness about HPV cancer prevention?
Mainly so people are aware that they don't have to go through this – what my mother has gone through and what I have experienced as a caretaker. They don't have to have cancer. They don't have to suffer the way my mom suffered, and the way all of these other people have suffered. And it's such an easy fix. If someone came out and said, ‘Here's the vaccine that can prevent breast cancer,’ everyone would be lining up to get it. People would be a lot more receptive, but because people think HPV is only transmitted through sexual acts, that really holds a negative stigma, and it doesn’t have to. HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and the HPV vaccine can prevent years of suffering and even death.
Please tell us a little bit about the role you have played to improve HPV vaccination coverage and any work you are involved in.
I'm part of the HPV Vaccination Roundtable of the Southeast, the Memphis and Shelby County HPV Cancer Prevention Roundtable, and the rural HPV vaccination think tank . We have a lot of educational opportunities that I participate in to share my experience and improve what people know and encourage them to act. I was the director of SheLeads! at Collierville Schools, a girl group that works with Girls Scouts Heart of the South. We had a guest speaker from the St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program come and talk to the girls about HPV vaccination. I really want to share as much as I can, especially in rural communities about how effective the vaccine is, how easy it is to get vaccinated, and the importance of it. One of the things that we've talked about in the think tank that I would really like to see more of are mobile vaccination stations or the mobile buses. They recently started doing the mobile mammogram buses in my area and that's been a big help there. I think if we had like a mobile vaccine station that would help because a lot of the people don't know where to go or how to get there or the logistics of it all.
What is your call to action?
To educate the parents to get their children vaccinated because the younger we get these children vaccinated from HPV cancers it can prevent them from a lifetime of suffering. I get my children vaccinated for everything else, so it's just one more vaccine that my children will receive.
Meet the staff and learn more about the St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program at stjude.org/hpv. Path to a Bright Future public awareness campaign information and resources available at stjude.org/bright-future.