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Health & Spirituality

Why Going Topless is Important to Me as a Black Queer Cancer Survivor

Written by Ericka Hart

I was really considering doing white paint over my scars. Then, I got present to why I was going topless in the first place. I really wanted people to see my scars, fight, pain, beauty, sexiness, and have an all day moment of reclaiming.

Afropunk is a summer festival I have attended every year for the past six years that I have been living in New York City. I chose to go topless there because to me “punk” means resisting conventional white supremacist/patriarchal notions and standing in one’s truth regardless of the response.

I even attended two years ago when I was on the strongest session of chemotherapy. I came with a huge blanket and a box of crackers. I felt nauseated that day but felt free being around people who look like me and navigate the world as I do.

As I walked around bare chested this year, people asked me what happened. How could I forget the day my  life changed forever?


Am I Going to Die?

black breast cancer survivor topless afropunk ericka hart

This picture of Ericka at Afropunk went viral. Photo by Sammy Sampson Photography

In 2014, I was 28 years old and standing in the middle of Wall Street with my hand on the door handle to go into a store when I got the phone call.

I saw his name on the caller ID on my phone and I felt like my heart skipped a beat. I immediately began speaking to my mom (my mother is deceased and someone I keep near to my heart, often reaching out when I am scared).

Needless to say, I remember this day vividly. My initial response: “Am I going to die?” My doctor’s response “no,” which I think is hilarious at this point because death is inevitable for everyone, haha.


I was diagnosed with breast cancer five months before my wedding

So, I was engaged when I was diagnosed. Breast cancer can be super challenging on a relationship, as I assert most illnesses can be. The caretaker plays a role that I would wish on no one.

My then-wife had to wait in waiting rooms for hours while I was in surgery, not knowing when I was going to come out or what was happening. She had to watch me navigate medical systems alone because she had to work and watch me deal with non-stop pain, decreased energy and libido due to chemotherapy.


Unfortunately, there is no guidebook to dealing with breast cancer, so it was super challenging.


My partner was supportive in the ways that she knew best. I am a caretaker by nature, so I generally end up in relationships where I get to take care of my partners.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, the roles were reversed, so it was hard on the two of us. My ex-wife is white, so I had to do lots of teaching around being black and navigating doctors/overall health risks as a black American.

We met in the Peace Corps and did a year and half and then moved to New York City shortly after.


So, we did have lots of tools on how to work together, but not enough for breast cancer

We needed to be in therapy and receiving so much more social and emotional support from alternative sources, but we did not. We, like many breast cancer patients, were operating from a place of urgency. Social and emotional wellness was on the back burner, and not even a hot burner, our relationship suffered and is one the reasons we ended.

Another was that we grew apart. We had been together for seven years when we split, most of our 20s. Lots of things have evolved and changed over that time.


Still, I Wouldn’t Be Here Without Her

I actually do not think I would be here if I was not partnered or at the very least I would be here and severely impacted by my experience. Having someone I could come home to, be held and a shoulder to always cry on, was necessary to my healing.


The Scariest Part Was Losing My Breasts

black lesbian couple

Ericka with her now partner who she adores.

I never had surgery before, so I would say my double mastectomy was the scariest part. I did lots of rituals on the beach and just in general for my breasts, and it was all in an effort to say goodbye to my breasts but to also calm my nerves.

I was not given a choice of a double mastectomy, I was told this must happen. I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, so I had two distinct cancers in each breast.

I have reclaimed my pain in a lot of ways, and I am so so happy that I have sensation across my where my nipples were (phantom nipple is real!) and along my scars. So, new partners have licked my scars and its intensely erotic.

I am still healing.

Ericka’s Tips for Supporting Your Partner During a Health Challenge

  1. Go with her to as many doctors appointments and as many sessions of chemo as you can.
  2. Do exercises with her like walking and yoga.
  3. Draw her a bath.
  4. Cook and clean for her whenever you can.
  5. Make space for her friends to come over so you can both feel loved and supported.
  6. Take care of yourself. Being a caretaker requires that you show up in a huge way and go above and beyond. It’s not just a cliché. You cannot take care of someone else if you yourself are not whole.
  7. Get regular mammograms, especially if you have a family history, regardless of your age. It’s scary, yes, but do not be in denial about your health. Denial is deadly.
  8. Get rigorous about what goes in and around your body. You only have one body, have to be good to it.

Featured image by @Sammy Sampson Photography

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Article written by:

Zamara Perri

Zamara Perri is the founder and editor of the Black Lesbian Love Lab blog. She loves black love and loves mangoes, cats, reading, cooking and writing about some of the challenges and joys of black lesbian relationships.

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    awesome. prayers and blessings for continued strength.

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