The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It was a walk with God’: Breast cancer survivor ends her 1,000-mile shirtless walk in D.C.

Eight months after Paulette Leaphart’s double mastectomy, God spoke to her.

She was at the beach over Labor Day weekend when God told her to remove her shirt. For the first time, she let strangers see her scars. Two women started to cry, and then Leaphart started to cry as well.

Soon, the beach had erupted into applause.

“It didn’t just free me that day,” she said in an interview with The Post. “Everybody who witnessed it and saw my scars, they were freed, too.”

That moment lifted Leaphart out of a post-surgery depression, and it gave her a new purpose: to help other survivors find beauty in their bodies — to free them.

Leaphart doesn’t see it as coincidence that, a year later, after her decision to embark on a topless 1,000-mile trek from her hometown of Biloxi, Miss., to Washington, D.C., went viral, Beyoncé invited her to appear in the “Freedom” segment of her visual album, “Lemonade.” But when she was first approached about it, Leaphart said, she was hesitant.

“I’m a Christian! I don’t want to get involved in that ‘Drunk in Love’ stuff!” she said, referring to a single from Beyoncé’s previous album. It took several calls from the filmmakers to persuade her.

Filming the segment turned out to be a tremendously emotional experience for Leaphart. She was blown away by the power of the costume that she was given to wear. She was dazzled by the grace and humility of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who told Leaphart that she wanted her daughter, Blue Ivy, to be as strong and beautiful as Leaphart when she grew up.

And although she didn’t know the name of the song at the time, Leaphart was moved to tears when she watched Beyoncé sing “Freedom” a cappella as she filmed a scene in the video.

You might say that Leaphart continues to make lemonade out of the lemons that she was given. On June 27, Leaphart’s birthday, she successfully finished her 60-day, 1,034-mile journey in Capitol Hill.

But this was only the beginning of the work that she’s set out to complete.

It wasn’t just an awareness stunt, she said. She also hoped to inspire change in the American health-care system and to demand that more attention and resources be devoted to finding a cure.

Things didn’t go quite as planned on the walk. At several points, Leaphart and Madeline, her 8-year-old daughter, who accompanied her on the journey, had to walk far more than their planned 30 miles per day in order to find a place to stay for the night. There were also several encounters with police, who would stop Leaphart because of her toplessness, and she’d have to explain what she was doing.

Further, the film crew that intended to follow Leaphart and turn her journey into a documentary titled “Scar Story” announced in early June that they had left the walk and would not be making a film about Leaphart after all. Leaphart told The Post that she and the crew ended up having different visions for how to conduct the project, with much of the disagreement having to do with how to spend the money that they had raised.

But Leaphart described the journey as “peaceful.”

“It was healing to me. It was gaining back my strength. It was spending some personal, much, much, much needed time with God,” she said.

After all, she said that God had been there for her at the beginning of her two biggest challenges: her private fight against breast cancer and her public walk to end breast cancer.

In an interview on NewsOne, Leaphart, who lives in New Orleans, said it was God who told her she had breast cancer. Even though she knew that breast cancer ran in her family, and several relatives had died because of it, she had never previously thought about the likelihood that she would also have it.

And so, in early 2014, Leaphart, a 47-year-old social worker and single mother who had never before had a mammogram, immediately sought out a surgeon, who confirmed her suspicions.

From that point onward, Leaphart went on a bit of a downward spiral. She had thought that, even with a double mastectomy, she’d be able to have her breasts reconstructed.

But doctors advised against reconstruction, as she has other health issues that may have posed a problem. The mastectomy “left me feeling deformed and less than a woman,” she said on NewsOne.

Then, her medications ended up costing between $2,500 and $5,000 per month. As a middle-class woman, Leaphart told The Post, she couldn’t afford to pay for her own medications, and she didn’t qualify for programs that would have covered the costs. Most months, she had to decide between paying her rent and getting her medications.

“I had to choose between life or a roof,” she said.

She chose life, and she was evicted. Leaphart and her four daughters who still lived with her (she has eight children in total) were homeless.

At her lowest point, God spoke to her again. This time, he told her to walk.

Most media outlets have characterized Leaphart’s walk as an effort to raise awareness — and that’s certainly a large part of it. Prior to her surgery, she said on NewsOne, she was unable to find very many photos online of women who had scars where their nipples once were. The whole purpose of walking topless was to show people what a woman with “amputated” breasts looked like.

Still, Leaphart has a more concrete goal that she intends to keep pursuing: ending breast cancer altogether. Finding a cure.

She was surprised to learn, she told The Post, that, the day after she arrived at Capitol Hill, Vice President Biden was hosting a summit where he would announce new initiatives that aim to find a cure for cancer. To her delight, she was able to attend some functions of the summit.

“You can’t tell me there’s no cure for the disease,” she said. “God said there’s a cure.”

In addition to attending the summit, Leaphart has scheduled meetings with seven members of Congress, with whom she hopes to discuss both the plan for finding a cure and ways to make health care more accessible to people who can’t afford crucial treatments.

Then, on July 9, Leaphart plans to hit the streets again, as she leads a march for a cure. The color featured during the march will be yellow, not pink. Pink, Leaphart said, represents awareness, which she endorses, but “yellow is the color of healing” — of a cure.