I Was Diagnosed With Cancer At My First OB/GYN Visit & I Don’t Want Anyone Else To Go Through What I Did

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The first time she went to a gynecologist, Emaan Abbass was 21. She’d heard her friends talking about their own visits, and figured it was time to go herself. The appointment ended up changing her life. “During that first exam, they diagnosed me with cervical cancer that had been caused by HPV,” she tells Refinery29, explaining that after that visit, she didn’t know where to turn for support. “I was raised in a pretty conservative Arab American home, where the topic of sex was very much a taboo. Like we never talked about it — I’m 34, and we still don’t.”. She says that’s why she didn’t go to the OB/GYN when she was younger; she didn’t know she was supposed to. Even after her diagnosis and during her treatments, Abbass didn’t feel comfortable telling her family what was happening.

Huda Kattan, the founder of the cosmetics line Huda Beauty, had her own experiences with sexual shame. She remembers feeling embarrassed about telling her conservative Iraqi American mother that she was pregnant — even though she was a married adult. “I felt so ashamed. She obviously knew I was married to my husband, knew I was having sex with him, but I just felt so uncomfortable with her knowing that,” she recalls.

Kattan tells Refinery29 that this same shame caused her to delay getting regular screenings done at her gynecologist. When she finally did, she discovered she had endometriosis and PCOS. “It affected my health, being ashamed. I think there’s so much of this that people deal with and they don’t even realize. They internalize it, and it’s really not healthy,” Kattan says.

Despite Kattan’s personal history, she never considered entering the feminine wellness space. It wasn’t until Abbass, who was her employee at the time, pitched her idea for a “feminine and sexual wellness brand” to HB Angels, Kattan’s seed investment fund, that Kattan began thinking about feminine health — and opening her eyes to the shame she’d been carrying for most of her life.

That brand, called KETISH, is now the first to be launched by HB Angels (which falls under HB Investments, Kattan’s venture capital firm). Abbass’s experiences with cervical cancer had made her interested in working in some way in the sexual health space, but it wasn’t until she heard about HB Angels via Kattan’s social media channels that she decided to actually “put pen to paper” and develop her idea. Soon after, she pitched the concept for KETISH — a combination of a product line and expert advice — to Kattan. “I related to Emaan’s story,” Kattan says. “How many people are not taking care of themselves? They deal with the pain, they deal with issues, and they’re just like, well, you know, it is what it is — and it’s just not right.”

Both Kattan and Abbass were raised in Muslim, Arab American households. Little formal research has been done into how Arab American families in general treat topics of sex and sexuality, but “the anecdotal evidence from community work suggests mixed results,” notes Sobia Ali-Faisal, PhD, a psychology lecturer at University of Prince Edward Island. “Some families are much more conservative around issues of sex and sexuality than others. In some families the women of the family talk about sex and related issues openly with each other but not with the men. And in other families, everyone is comfortable talking about the topic.”

But we know that people who grow up in homes where people don’t talk openly about sexual health and sexuality or take a fear-based approach to these conversations — such as, “Don’t have sex before marriage or God will punish you” — can feel discouraged from seeking out reproductive health care. “Basically anything with regards to sexual and reproductive health is equated with sex, and because sex is wrong before marriage, it’s shut down,” explains Sameera Qureshi, an occupational therapist and sexual health educator. “There are mental health impacts as well, where we feel inherently unworthy or disconnected from our sexual and reproductive health. And so this means that we may not have awareness of our sexual health, and we don’t have language to talk about our bodies, which makes it really challenging to then be able to seek out help.”

During our call, Abbass won’t say much about what to expect from KETISH’s product line, which will roll out in mid-August (although she does tease items related to “body care” and “pleasure,” and says she’s excited about “the device category”). And the name, according to the press release announcing the brand, was derived from “Qetesh,” the ancient Egyptian goddess of sexuality and pleasure. But Abbass also says that she hopes to create a community around the brand, an “ecosystem where women could come and learn and engage in conversation” with one another.

“If I had adequate education or the knowledge around preventative feminine health or maybe even a community that I could lean into for support or guidance, then maybe my situation would have turned out differently,” Abbass says. “Maybe — maybe — I would have been able to catch it sooner, or maybe I would have felt less alone in my journey.”

Experts agree that education is key to getting past the kind of stigma and sexual shame that can harm people. “The education has to be such that cultural values are respected, while still being evidence-based, comprehensive, and focused more on giving young people the tools they need to make healthy decisions as opposed to telling young folks what decisions to make,” Dr. Ali-Faisal points out.

She’s speaking about resources for younger people, but education can — and should — continue into adulthood. Abbass also mentions that when she was first diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by HPV, it was in the early days of social media, before it was possible to find a thriving and ready-made community for various issues. But while the internet has plenty of bad information, it can also be a wonderful resource for people who need it. “I think with social media and being online, that’s one barrier that has been knocked down,” Qureshi says. So much information and support can be found online, she says, “and I think there are more educators working in the field now and more awareness. So things are changing. And also in some ways, there’s so much work to still be done.”

The press release for KETISH’s launch states that the brand will be “empowering women through luxurious better-for-you products and thoughtful, expert advice,” and although Abbass didn’t give many details about the educational element of the brand, she stressed its significance when it comes to people dealing with things like HPV, PCOS, or postpartum depression. “I think it’s important to shed light on these issues, and I think that if there is more awareness around it, then women can feel more supported. They can feel more empowered to take action or just more empowered to lean on each other, to feel like they’re not alone,” she says. “That’s probably one of the most important things for me as a founder, is that we’re allowing women to feel like they have a whole army of women behind them, so that they can feel like they’re never alone in their journey.”

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