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Paulette Leaphart ... "I don't want to give them a pretty story wrapped up in a pretty pink bow." (Scar Story)

Beyond survival

Why one Mississippi woman is walking 1,000 miles to Capitol Hill, bare-chested

By Ludmila Leiva on May 5, 2016

One humid afternoon in early August, a woman named Paulette Leaphart was walking through the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Leaphart passed a parked black Suburban and, seeing there were people inside, stopped to make conversation, quickly learning they were filmmakers. “I think someone should make a movie about me,” Leaphart said, lifting off her shirt to reveal two double mastectomy scars stitched across her chest. “I’m going to walk 1,000 miles to the White House, bare-chested.”

In 2014, Leaphart was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She soon learned she would need a double mastectomy, but was told there was no option for reconstructive surgery due to pre-existing health conditions. Following the surgery and several months of chemotherapy, Leaphart was finally cancer-free. But, survival was not enough. After a photo of her scarred chest went viral on Facebook, Leaphart was determined to find a way to help other survivors of trauma: she decided to walk across the country baring her scars.

After hearing Leaphart’s story last August, producer Sasha Solodukhina was inspired to document the journey. Since the project’s inception, Solodukhina partnered with director Emily Mackenzie to create Scar Story, a feature-length documentary chronicling Leaphart’s 1000-mile journey from Biloxi, Mississippi to the nation’s capital. The two filmmakers believe Leaphart’s story has the power to influence contemporary discourse regarding trauma and shame.

In recent years, much of American society has become better at talking about breast cancer. Today, there are pink ribbons on countless products and billboards, especially around Breast Cancer Awareness month each October. However, this phenomenon, sometimes known as “pinkwashing,” can sanitize the reality of the challenging illness that will affect one in eight U.S. women in their lifetimes and claim numerous lives.

“People are capitalizing off of a disease,” said director Emily Mackenzie. “It puts a big smiley face on something that is not cute or smiley.”

Despite heightening awareness, pinkwashing can also invalidate the struggles of breast cancer survivors and may promote a false message. “It turns something that is devastating into something palatable,” Mackenzie added, noting that this trend has roots in gender disparity and that breast cancer is the only disease that involves this style of marketing.

By telling her story, Leaphart is determined to change this narrative. “I don’t want to give them a pretty story wrapped up in a pretty pink bow,” Leaphart said. “Because that’s not what it is.”

In today’s society, women are often conditioned to believe that conventionally attractive physical bodies are tantamount to self worth. As a result, losing a body part regarded as essential to female beauty can be devastating for many women who undergo a double-mastectomy. This was the case for Leaphart, who experienced a crisis upon realizing she would no longer have breasts.

Before her surgery, Leaphart searched for images of other women who had lost their breasts to cancer, but her image search only yielded medicalized, postoperative photos. Leaphart’s inability to see herself in images of post-mastectomy bodies left her feeling hopeless. “Not only did she find out that she had cancer and had to go through this procedure,” Solodukhina says, “But she had so much trouble finding representation.

Though visibility has increased in the years since, Leaphart wants to use her body and experiences to bring topics of body positivity — particularly post-trauma — to the surface. “It is really important to show a woman with a body we are not normally allowed to see,” says Mackenzie.

Solodukhina notes that promoting realistic representations of breast cancer can also have an impact on early-identification and prevention. The portrayal of women’s bodies in the media often perpetuate taboos that can make some women uncomfortable talking about commonly sexualized body parts, such as breasts. Leaphart and her family felt the consequences of this reality. “When Paulette found out she had breast cancer several of her female family members had already died from it,” says Solodukhina. “And none of them talked about it.”

Throughout Leaphart’s journey, the two filmmakers also plan to collect scar stories, physical or otherwise, from people across the country for a multimedia mosaic of stories. “We all have our own traumas,” Solodukhina says. “Being able to connect can lead to questions of how we can make these experiences less isolating.”

The documentary also aims to increase political attention to health care policy. “There is no comprehensive federal regulation of known carcinogenic chemicals in daily products,” Mackenzie said. “Every day we are encountering these toxins that are known to give us cancer.”

Class and race can also play a role in determining the likelihood of exposure to chemicals associated with cancer, and racial and ethnic minorities in the United States are often exposed to higher levels of environmental pollutants.

Currently, a considerable portion of cancer research funding goes to pharmaceutical companies for treatment advancement. While many of these drugs give some a new lease on life, the high cost of development can also make them prohibitively expensive for individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“The money raised by women walking for a cure goes into an industry that often cuts out women like Paulette who don’t have the resources to buy them,” said Mackenzie, noting that following her cancer treatment, Leaphart’s family was left in a precarious financial position. “A huge amount of money goes into researching treatment as opposed to looking at environmental causes of cancer and illness.”

On April 30, after over a year of physical training, Leaphart finally began her long walk to the White House. Yet, even as she commenced her formidable journey, Leaphart cultivated a fearless perseverance. “She has supreme confidence that she will be able to handle it physically and mentally,” said Solodukhina. “She’s not afraid of being hurt because she’s been there before.”

In the coming months, Mackenzie and Solodukhina hope Scar Story will help breast cancer survivors reclaim their stories while empowering all survivors of trauma. Leaphart’s journey is a powerful reminder that scars — whether physical or emotional — do not necessitate shame. “We are afraid of what people might say or how they’ll judge us,” Leaphart said. “I want to put an end to that.”