"If you've had this happen to you, you can help other people," the comedian tells PEOPLE

Updated October 14, 2015 01:25 PM
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Margaret Cho is using comedy to heal old old wounds.

Growing up in San Francisco, the comedian, 46, endured years of abuse at the hands of a family friend who molested her for more than seven years, beginning when she was just 5 years old. At 14, she was raped by a different acquaintance.

“Some kids at school found out and bullied me over it – they were animals,” Cho tells PEOPLE. “It is very painful and disturbing when you realize the depth of apathy out there toward the suffering of victims.”

Now as she embarks on her 38-date PsyCHO stand-up tour, the comedian is hoping that talking about those issues on stage will help empower other victims.

“People don’t realize the power they have. They don’t realize that if you’ve had this happen to you, you can help other people,” she says. “You really are no longer a victim. You are a survivor.”

For years, Cho kept her childhood traumas a secret, hiding the abuse from her conservative Korean parents until years later. When, at age 17, Cho dropped out of high school – where in addition to bullying Cho, fellow students had joked after the murder of one of her favorite teachers, who was killed for being gay – her parents thought she was just being a rebellious teen who wanted to pursue stand-up.

When Cho finally opened up to them about her trauma, they encouraged her not to talk about it.

Cho has not publicly identified the person who abused her, saying “there are complications,” because there are other possible victims she knows from childhood who “may not be aware that it happened,” because they were too young.

“If they don’t remember, I would prefer they didn’t remember. I would prefer that stay buried, because I don’t want the responsibility of bringing that back,” Cho says.

Cho says she is “tortured” by the knowledge that the statute of limitations for the crimes has run out, as they happened decades ago.

“A lot of victims don’t come forward because they are afraid to. And when they do find the strength to finally press charges, they can’t.”

When Cho began touring as a comic at 17, she found solace in the creative outlet comedy gave her. During her current tour, Cho closes the show with two musical numbers, one of which is called “I want to Kill My Rapist.”

“When I’ve performed it live, women in the audience were screaming and crying and singing along,’ she says. “They felt unburdened by it. Sharing the suffering alleviates the burden. And that’s what I’m trying to do.’

For more on how Margaret Cho is using comedy to work through her childhood trauma and help other abuse survivors, pick up this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday