This Brave Woman Is Walking Topless Across America For 1,000 Miles. The Reason? Heartbreaking

Image: Vimeo/Scar Story

The 1,034-mile journey Paulette Leaphart has ahead of her is nothing compared to the challenges she has already overcome. Indeed, the mother-of-eight is on a mission to Washington, and she is telling her heartbreaking story with grace and beauty to all who will listen.

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A single-mother, Leaphart originally hails from Biloxi, Mississippi. However, she later moved her family of four biological and four adopted children to New Orleans.

Image: Instagram/the_scar_story

Needless to say, the deeply religious, social worker was a busy woman. But Leaphart’s life was changed forever in 2014 when she claimed that she awoke in her bed hearing the council of God.

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“I suddenly woke from sleep and heard the voice of God telling me I have cancer,” Leaphart told PEOPLE. So what did she do? She immediately booked an appointment with a doctor.

Image: Facebook/Prayers For Paulette8children

Amazingly, despite the mammogram finding nothing, the follow-up ultrasound did confirm Leaphart’s condition. In fact, Leaphart was told that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer and would need to have a double mastectomy to rid her of her tumor. This may not have been too much of a surprise for the then 47-year-old, as she revealed that she had a “strong family history of breast cancer,” and she had previously lost a 32-year-old cousin to the disease.

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Sadly, though, Leaphart also learned that she wouldn’t be able to have post-op reconstructive surgery on her breasts because of pre-existing health conditions. However, she didn’t have time to dwell on this news, as she still had a hard enough fight on her hands as it was.

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Indeed, Leaphart had to undergo extensive chemotherapy treatment, which cost her between $2,500 and $5,000 a month. Of course, she struggled to pay for her own medication. “Seventy-two hours before my surgery, I had to sell my car to pay the bills,” Leaphart told Ebony Magazine. “I lost my house, I didn’t have insurance. I eventually got Medicare, but I lost everything.”

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So even though Leaphart eventually beat her cancer, she still found herself homeless, jobless and contemplating a life without breasts. Certainly, she admitted that the mastectomy had left her feeling “deformed and less than a woman.” It was her lowest point during the whole ordeal.

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But she didn’t give up. In fact, Leaphart, who describes herself as a “fighter,” was vacationing with her daughters when she decided to stop hiding her scars. This was the moment that she removed her t-shirt and proudly stood topless on the crowded beach.

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“At first, people were shocked,” Leaphart told PEOPLE. “A large group of people started to crowd around me, just staring. Then one woman started to cry. Then everyone started to cry and everyone burst into applause, congratulating me and thanking me.”

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Leaphart also shared an image of herself on Facebook, which quickly amassed over 1,000 likes; she further received messages of support from cancer survivors across the globe. Empowered, it was then that Leaphart decided to walk for those who’d defeated cancer, those who had succumbed to it and those yet to be diagnosed.

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Part of her motivation was due to the lack of public awareness that she encountered when trying to learn more about women who had also experienced a double mastectomy. And so she set about promoting a realistic representation of breast cancer in a positive way.

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For Leaphart, this meant going topless on a 1,000-mile trek across the country. She planned to start the challenge in her hometown Biloxi, walking north-west toward Washington and finishing at Capitol Hill on her 50th birthday, which was June 27, 2016.

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What’s more, thanks to the publicity her challenge gained and her viral campaign on Facebook, Leaphart captured the attention of one of the world’s biggest stars. In fact, she was invited to participate in the “Freedom” section of Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade.

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And, although she was initially reluctant due to a clash in her Christian values and some of Beyoncé’s raunchy lyrics, Leaphart eventually agreed. Fortunately, the experience turned out to be an emotional one for Leaphart, particularly when Beyoncé and Jay-Z told her that they’d like their daughter, Blue Ivy, to grow up to be as strong and beautiful as her.

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“I had no idea it would be this powerful,” Leaphart later told PEOPLE. “It was beautiful. What Beyoncé made is important. It’s strong. I’m strong. She’s strong. Every woman in the video is strong. We are warriors.”

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Leaphart’s quest also inspired Brooklyn-based filmmakers Emily MacKenzie and Sasha Solodukhina to make a documentary. Indeed, MacKenzie and Solodukhina hope to influence contemporary discourse around trauma and shame with the resulting feature-length film, Scar Story, .

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And so, on April 30, 2016, after a whole year of intensive training, Leaphart embarked on her slog across the country. She was joined by her eight-year-old daughter, Madeline, who kept her company during the long days of walking.

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However, the trip was not without its challenges. Often, the pair had to walk further than the 30 miles a day that they had planned just to find a place to stay. They were also regularly stopped by police and forced to explain Leaphart’s toplessness.

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But, right on schedule, Leaphart arrived at Capitol Hill just in time for her 50th birthday. Coincidentally, the next day Vice-President Joe Biden was holding a summit to announce new initiatives to beat cancer. Naturally, then, Leaphart remains hopeful that a cure will be found. “You can’t tell me there’s no cure for the disease,” she said. “God said there’s a cure.”

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