Life has often been unkind to Paulette McKenzie Leaphart. At age 6, she was sent to live with relatives and bounced from house to house for most of her young life.
She found refuge in God and in church and she promised the former that for every child she bore, she would adopt one who had been given away. She ended up with a total of eight.
She later divorced, and was living a comfortable life as a single mother – not rich, but not poor, either. They were getting by, they wanted for little, and Leaphart was happy.
In 2014, after a cousin who was like a sister to her died of breast cancer, Leaphart awoke crying from a nightmare, convinced that she, too, had something hideous growing inside her.
A mammogram showed nothing. But Leaphart was not dissuaded. She pushed for an ultrasound, and there it was, a tumor lurking in her breast. A nasty, fast-growing tumor that required a double mastectomy.
She was told she could not have reconstructive surgery because of other health issues she battles, including a condition that causes her blood to clot at an alarming rate.
“I was so hurt. I was so devastated,” she told InsideEdition.com. “You know, I’m a lady. I thought having breasts was what made us different from the male species. It was our femininity, or so I thought.”
She struggled with that loss. What in the world would she look like without breasts? Who would she be?
And so, to show people exactly what it looks like, the 49-year-old cancer survivor will walk 1,000 miles, with a documentary crew in tow, from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Washington, D.C.
And she won’t be a wearing a shirt. Or anything else above the waist.
“I’m going to Congress and [will] put my breastless chest in their faces,” she said.
Her walk begins in two weeks. She has been training for a year, and walks 30 miles a day. She works out in a gym three to four times a week. “My legs are like steel,” she says.
Her chest, with its scars, has already been featured in a short video by Emily MacKenzie, who will document Leaphart’s 40-day journey to Washington.
In it, Leaphart is seen walking bare-chested down a rural road, saying she is not ashamed of her scars, nor of her battle that "kicked cancer's a**."
She wants people to see those marks. She wants people to see what cancer can do, and what it cannot do. Namely, steal your identity.
She first went topless not long after her surgery. “My girls and I took a trip to the beach,” she said. God, she said, had told her to take off her top. And to take photographs.
“It was Labor Day weekend,” she said. “The beach was loaded.” She stripped to her waist and told her 12-year-daughter to start taking photos. A crowd began to form. People were staring. They were saying things, but Leaphart didn’t listen.
Then she saw some women crying. “And then the whole beach just exploded in applause,” she said.
Her daughter told her to post the images on Facebook. So she did. “Within 20 minutes there were 40,000 likes,” she said. She got messages from Asia, Africa, and Canada. Facebook told her she ultimately received 25 million likes.
“I had a husband writing to me, saying his wife had a double mastectomy seven years ago and he’d never see her without a shirt since then,” Leaphart said. The woman had seen her Facebook photos and had screamed to her husband to come look.
Eventually, that woman went to the beach and took photos without her top, Leaphart said.
Her Facebook images also caught the attention of Beyonce, who invited her to appear in her mysterious “docu-style” Lemonade special debuting on HBO Saturday.
“My daughters were screaming ‘Oh my God. You’re in Beyonce’s video!'” Leaphart laughed.
She had no medical insurance when she was diagnosed. Her medical bills now total more than $200,000. She says she sold her jewelry, her car, everything she could think of, to raise money.
She is now living in New Orleans with her youngest children, ages 8 through 15. Her older, grown kids are helping her out. She is now on disability.
“When you need help, the government just don’t help middle-class people,” she said. “They just don’t. I paid my taxes. I never asked the government for nothing.”
She hopes to make that point when she gets to Washington. But along the way, as she walks each step, she really just wants to have a good time. And see the countryside.
“I am so excited,” she said. “It’s going to be fun. We’re going to be camping.
“When you come so close to losing your life, you just want to experience life in slow motion,” she said.