Paulette McKenzie Leaphart believes that the ugly truth of breast cancer is often overlooked. Although pink ribbons, campaigns and clothing can raise awareness, the scars and pain that breast cancer inflicts on its victims and families can get lost in the hoopla. Leaphart wants to change that.
A breast cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy, Leaphart is walking 1,000 miles from Biloxi, Mississippi, to the U.S. Congress, topless, to raise awareness about the disease and to encourage women of color to be vigilant about their breast health.
During her journey, Leaphart sat down with rolling out to discuss her 1,000 mile topless walk and being a powerful voice for breast cancer awareness.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What was life like being raised in Mississippi?
I was born uncelebrated. My mom was a teenager when she had me and she was married to my father who was a very abusive alcoholic. My mother left when I was 6 years old, so I was bounced from house to house as a child. So, I was abused sexually and emotionally and physically. While I was a child, I promised God that if I was allowed to live, I would grow up and celebrate children. And I’ve adopted four children. I gave birth to four children. So I am a mother of eight.
How has it been giving your children the life you never got to experience?
I celebrate my children. I think that’s important. My children are my life. They are my legacy and they are my greatest assets. I have four [who’re] college educated. I have three [who’re] in high school and middle school. And I have one in elementary school. They are my life. They are the wind under my wings. They are the reasons I fly. They give me the strength and the motivation to beat cancer. I’m here today and not dead because of my children. I refuse to let cancer defeat me.
Let’s talk about the initial diagnosis. What do you remember most, when did it occur, and what was your first step after the initial diagnosis?
Well, I was 47 years old and I have a family history of breast cancer. My mom is a breast cancer survivor. Her mother was a breast cancer survivor. My mom’s younger sister is [deceased] because of breast cancer. She died at 45. My mother’s niece, my cousin, died in 2016 at the age of 31 from breast cancer. Six months after that, God came to me, in my dream, in my sleep, at 2 o’clock in the morning, and he woke me up and whispered that cancer was in my breast. I woke up, panicked. I ran to my 22-year-old son’s room and I asked him to help me examine my breasts because God [had] just told me I had cancer. And of course it startled him. He calmed me down and helped me examine my breasts. He said he didn’t feel anything but I know God’s voice. I’ve been close to God since I was a child. I took notice because I was 47 and never had a mammogram. And I didn’t take breast cancer as seriously as I should have. Because at 47, I should have had several mammograms by then.
When did you decide to make this journey from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Washington, D.C.?
Well, it wasn’t a decision I made. After my double mastectomy, I wasn’t a candidate for reconstruction. And that devastated me. Because I am a female and in my mind I was like “what was I going to look like with no breasts?” So after the doctors told me because of the health reasons it would put my life in danger to do the reconstruction, I was just left with scars across my chest. I went into a deep depression for almost eight months. After my treatment, and after my double mastectomy, I took my girls on a vacation to the beach. Labor Day weekend, Sept. 4. The beach was loaded and here I am standing with the force of God asking me to bare my scars on the beach. It was hard, but he gave me the strength to do it. It was a symbol of freedom.
Why is it important for you to walk across the country?
I am walking across the country because I want women to see what breast cancer is. I’m walking because it’s a serious illness. Over 40,000 women in America die each year from breast cancer. Over 236,000 new cases of breast cancer in America every year. One out of 8 women in America will be diagnosed with breast cancer. So it’s serious. And out of the 40,000 women that die, 60 percent are women of color. So we are not taking it serious. You know, the pink ribbons and the slogan “save the ta-tas” and all of the pink washing is not getting the attention because we’re still losing so many lives to this disease. Like me, I never paid attention to those pink ribbons and the pretty pink, period. The October pink month, I just never paid attention to it. And it angered me because there is nothing pretty and pink about cancer. They need to tell the truth because we need to know what breast cancer can do and what it is. A mammogram, by the way, did not pick up my tumor. If you have a family history of breast cancer, we don’t need to just stop at a mammogram.
So what has the journey been like thus far?
It has been absolutely beautiful. The same reactions I received on that beach, God asked me to do 1,000 miles across the country to bare my scars. And I wasn’t going to disobey God. So God equipped me. He took two years and equipped me for this. It was beautiful.
What advice would you give to any woman, man, or child who is newly diagnosed?
Well, my first response would be to let them know that they have to do their own homework, do their own research, and do what’s comfortable for them. And definitely listen to their doctors and listen to their advice. All doctors, you know, do not know everything, so we have to be proactive and we have to educate ourselves on the treatment plans that we take. Don’t just talk to one doctor. For the doctors, take your time and don’t rush to a decision because it’s their lives. And you have to do your research and you have to get more than one opinion. More than one doctor’s opinion. Knowledge is power. So you have to educate yourself on what’s going on with your body. And there is a lot of information out there. Join groups with other women. Find other women [who’re] going through it. And make a wise decision.