Paulette Leaphart lost both of her breasts to cancer two days before Valentine’s Day in 2014.
Doctors told her that she was not a candidate for reconstructive surgery because of other health concerns.
“That’s the part where I lost it,” Leaphart says in an upcoming documentary about breast cancer patients. “What does a woman look like with no breasts?”
She’s showing the world what a woman with no breasts looks like. On May 1 Leaphart began walking 1,000 miles from Mississippi to Washington, D.C., to get people — and Congress — talking about cancer and to show other woman not to be ashamed of their mastectomy scars.
She is walking topless.
People can follow her walk on her Facebook page: Prayers for Paulette8Children.
“I can notice how much the sun has been kissing me. Black people tan too,” she wrote over the weekend. “So it’s important to wear sun screen for skin protection ... 500 miles down, 500 miles to go until I reach Washington DC ... I should be in Charlotte North Carolina by Thursday of this week.”
So far, she reports, she hasn’t had any run-ins with the law except for one incident in Alabama after which the police officer —who posed for a photo with her — wrote her a letter of apology “thanking me for helping him better understand his job,” she posted on May 11. “Most of the police have been very helpful and supportive.”
Leaphart began posting photos of her bare chest on Facebook to help fight the depression she sank into after losing her breasts. The page caught on with other cancer survivors who started sharing their stories with her.
Beyonce recently featured Leaphart in the video for her visual album “Lemonade” and has reportedly promised to walk a mile of the journey to D.C. with her.
“I’ve never met anybody on a mission like Paulette. I feel like I’m meeting someone out of an epic poem or something,” Emily MacKenzie, director of the documentary “Scar Story,” told Business Insider.
MacKenzie told ABC News that she worries about Leaphart’s safety as she walks.
“I worry about encountering people along the way who will not take kindly to the sight of a bare-chested, breast-less woman walking without shame or fear,” MacKenzie said.
“I worry that people will be ugly to her, but, again, that’s something Paulette has faced many times and is emotionally strong enough to handle.”
Leaphart is particularly interested in reaching out to other black women, for whom recent cancer findings have been grim.
A report from the American Cancer Society last fall revealed that for the first time the incidence of breast cancer among black women is equal to that of white women. Black women have not benefited from advances in diagnosis and treatment like white women have, the report showed, leaving them at a significant disadvantage.
Mortality rates have been historically higher for black women with breast cancer, which made the new findings even more alarming.
“It is a crisis,” Marc Hurlbert, chief mission officer for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, told The New York Times.
“The increasing incidence is unfortunate because the mortality rate for black women is already so much higher, and now if more women are getting breast cancer, then unfortunately, the number of black women dying from the disease will go up.”
In the teaser for “Scar Story,” Leaphart explains that she doesn’t want to sugarcoat breast cancer for any woman.
“I don’t want to give them a pretty story wrapped up in a pretty pink bow about breast cancer because that’s not what it is. This is breast cancer, across my chest, the scars,” she says.
“And it shocks them into going and taking care of themselves. And that’s why I walk.”
Leaphart told The Establishment blog that she was not prepared and “was devastated” in 2014 when a doctor recommended a double mastectomy after finding a small but aggressive tumor in her right breast.
“I was a woman who took pride in my femininity and my looks and my sexiness. I’m a single mom — I felt like I still had some rubber left on my tires,” she told the blog.
At first her doctor recommended reconstructive surgery but then told her that implants would be too dangerous because she takes blood thinners for a clotting disorder, she told The Establishment.
Eight months after the double mastectomy, Leaphart said she was at the beach over Labor Day weekend when God moved her to take off her shirt in public.
“People were staring at first, and then started gathering around. Two women started crying. And then I started crying — tears were just rolling down my face. It was such a spiritual moment,” she recalled. “Then everyone started clapping. It was a powerful.”
Leaphart posted photos of that beach trip to Facebook and they quickly went viral.
“A man wrote me and said, ‘I haven’t seen my wife without her shirt since she had her breasts removed seven years ago. She saw your photographs and she screamed and she called my name and I went running to see what was wrong. She said, look! And pointed to the computer,’” Leaphart said. “And I got hundreds of stories of like that.”
She took an even bigger step by taking walks around her neighborhood while topless. Her neighbors, she told The Establishment, looked at her like she’d lost her mind.
And then? “They got used to it. And I got comfortable with it too.” she said.
She was already planning to walk to D.C. when she met documentary producer Sasha Solodukhina — MacKenzie’s collaborator — and asked her to film the journey.
Leaphart trained for more than a year, walking 30 miles a day. If everything goes as planned she will arrive in Washington on June 27, her 50th birthday.
“That’s important to me, to know that I made it to 50,” she says. “So many women didn’t.”