Ky. voices: Vaccine, Pap smears can end cervical cancer

A vaccine works to prevent cervical cancer
A vaccine works to prevent cervical cancer

It was, as they say, a defining moment. And it arrived unexpectedly, as those moments often do. My mother suddenly announced that she could not urinate. The OB-GYN oncologist walked out of the examining room having relieved her of what he said was the worst pain you could experience.

"What is wrong with her?" I asked in shock. With a look of one who has seen too much, he uttered "advanced cervical cancer" and quickly looked away. I thought he would take off running.

With my hearing-impaired 81-year-old father at my side, I violated a cardinal rule: Don't ask that to which you do not know the answer. I didn't ask; I blurted: "How in the world did she get that?"

His reply? "It is a sexually transmitted disease." I reeled. He looked desperately sad.

In an anxious voice, my father didn't ask, he begged: "What did he say"!

"Nothing, daddy, he said nothing,"

A white lie, they call it — and one proudly perpetrated in the instant it took to resolve taking that information to my grave.

But to do that is selfish.

Nearly 10 years hence, my father at 90 wouldn't hear a freight train if it roared through the house, and with his eyesight so bad that he can no longer read his beloved newspaper, I feel safe revealing the secret. The truth is my mother and my father were married over 50 years and both — I'll bet my life on it — were as pure as driven snow.

My mission? As chair of the Kentucky Cervical Cancer Coalition to take the opportunity in January, designated Cervical Cancer Month, to educate others about an important campaign called S.A.V.E. — (S)creen, (A)nd (V)accine equals (E)limination of a dreaded cancer.

Why not embrace the campaign when elimination of the disease is so clearly within our reach?

I admit my reluctance to single out one particular cancer for spotlight. From my mother's experience and that of others, there seems little in the way of a happy ending to cancer of any kind. It can be faced with courage, with stoic resolve or the intense fear of dying that so sadly marked my mother's final journey. But as far as I can discern, it is horrific.

But cervical cancer can be prevented through early screening with a Pap smear and moreover it can be eliminated in future generations through a vaccine that is Food and Drug Administration-approved and widely available.

This cancer takes a particular toll on Kentucky, which ranks fifth for cervical cancer, compared to other states and the District of Columbia. In the Appalachian region, where poverty rates and low literacy prevail, the rate is 10.8 per 100,000 females, as compared to the U.S. statistic of 8.1 per 100,000 females.

These statistics alone paint a picture of bleakness and waste of human potential. My mother was a textbook case: born in Eastern Kentucky to poverty and lacking even a high school education. I can only imagine her reluctance to report a problem — especially one as "embarrassing" as cervical cancer.

A grandfather once told me that he wouldn't allow the vaccine to be administered to his granddaughter because it would encourage promiscuity. I can barely conceal my rage at an argument that is so absurd as to deserve no answer. We have only begun to understand the transmission routes of the disease. And most importantly, no one deserves to die because of so-called promiscuity.

On Wednesday as the session of the General Assembly begins, the cervical cancer coalition will hold a S.A.V.E. rally in the Capitol Rotunda. We will be surrounded by heroes of our past, as embodied in the statues of those who stood tall with courage and bold action, along with the heroes and leaders of today as we seek to raise awareness of our campaign.

But let us also remember those brave women who have died too young, leaving children and families to grieve.

For fear of invading privacy, I shall not name anyone in particular save one — Alma Crystal Ross Leach, my mother. Despite her precipitous descent into the hell of cancer, she was able to provide a steady curriculum of life lessons for us left behind to ponder our humanity.

Near the end, when asked by the hospice doctor what she needed to be able to do in order to live her life comfortably to the end, she replied in a low, but strong, voice: "I want to do little things." She didn't want much; she didn't need to suffer as she did.

Let's unite in the S.A.V.E. campaign. It is the only option that makes any sense.