Ericka Hart is the definition of a warrior.
The Maryland native, who went viral this past summer after she was photographed topless at Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn, New York, was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer at the age of 28, undergoing a double mastectomy months before her scheduled wedding date and while completing graduate school.
In addition to the double mastectomy, the now 30-year-old sex educator was also advised to undergo several chemotherapy treatments to fight the cancer.
But while many women who have similar diagnoses primarily grieve the loss of their breasts, it was the oncoming loss of her hair that had Ericka most heavy-hearted.
"When I went to the surgeon about my next steps after I was diagnosed, he told me I was going have a double mastectomy and my next question was, 'Am I going to have chemo?'" Hart told HuffPost Canada Style in a telephone interview.
"And it wasn’t necessarily because it would have affected my body in so and so ways, but it was my hair. Because I was also 28 and I’m also thinking about aesthetics. Like, am I still going to be cute? What am I going to look like?" she continued.
The sexuality expert’s reasoning behind her sentiments are much deeper than surface-level appearance — it had a lot to do with the important relationship black women share with their hair. This concern is what Ericka believes is the main difference in narrative between a black woman with cancer to a white woman with cancer.
"[A white woman's perspective] is what’s perpetuated in the media — where it’s this sadness over breasts being gone. But I wasn’t necessarily sad, I mean there’s definitely a mourning of my breasts, but certainly not to any degree of my dreadlocks," she explained.
But hair isn't the only issue black women with cancer face, at least according to Hart, who, after her double mastectomy and chemotherapy treatments is now 100 per cent cancer-free. When she was ready to have her reconstructive surgery, she quickly noticed that there was no visibility for black women who were going through this final step.
"I told my plastic surgeon, 'I googled double mastectomy and I don’t see any black women for the most part. And I definitely don’t see any young black women. So can you show me some photos of what I’m going to look like?' And it took her two weeks to find one photo."
This was something Hart did not take lightly, especially since breast cancer rates are continuously on the rise among black women.
This is what led to Hart going topless at Afropunk, and is one of the reasons why she shares topless photos of herself online.
"We don't know what [a double mastectomy] looks like," she said. "It's terrifying."
But for the most part, Ericka shares topless photos to encourage others to "check their breasts."
"Me going topless was not so much for me to show off my mastectomy scars, but more so for people to check their breasts. That is the main reason why I did it. I wanted [women] to see breast cancer looks like this. It looks like me," she said.
At the end of the day, Hart hopes the conversation around breast cancer awareness will go beyond the month of October.
"All I want to do is make a difference. My hope is that...these pictures don't stop rolling and people don't stop paying attention," she said. "I'm so much more than [the breast cancer girl] and so is breast cancer. It affects so much more than that, more than October."
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