Ericka Hart is an activist, a sexuality educator, a writer, and someone who was diagnosed with breast cancer. All of those things are a part of who she is, and she fights to change the way cancer patients are represented, making sure that people remember a diagnosis is not an identity. Receiving her own at 28, Ericka couldn’t see herself as a woman of color represented in literature on mastectomies, or in conversation around cancer treatment. After her own double mastectomy she began her advocacy, including topless activism, reminding people that cancer patients and survivors shouldn’t be either deified or desexualized, and all around fighting a patriarchy that keeps representation, even in medical fields, narrow.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer at a very young age. Can you walk us through how you first found out and what that moment was like for you?
I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer when I was 28 years old. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a very young age to be diagnosed with breast cancer. The age assigned to breast cancer diagnoses are arbitrary and do not consider family history. Hopefully, we will see this number updated very soon, as there are many people who are diagnosed under 30 with all types of cancer, including breasts.
I found out in May 2014 while sitting in Wall Street. Good thing in NYC no one cares what sort of emotion you are having as I had what felt like an endless melt down in the middle of corporate greed (I mean... America :) ). I burst into tears and literally no one asked me what was wrong, much to my relief.
Can you talk about how your relationship to your body shifted after your double mastectomy, if it did?
I find this question to be interesting on several fronts. I think the societal assumption is that having a double mastectomy would make my body somehow abnormal and thus warrant a change in my relationship to it or that not having nipples must have signaled a descent into shame or discomfort around my body image. People generally don't ask this question of able-bodied individuals or people not living with a chronic illness, which indicates to me how little conversation folks are having about bodies, how different they all are for each person and how they change given a number of circumstances. But, my relationship with my body hasn't changed. I have a larger platform to share with people my body. To place myself in a narrative, where I would otherwise be discarded. As I have aged, I have gained more access to the ways in which to describe how I have navigated the world in this body. But, there has been no internal change, I'd argue the physical now matches the internal. I didn't go from having nipples and loving it, to now having my breasts removed and hating it, as is widely held by the larger society (see ableism, white supremacist notions of beauty).
You’re a sex educator and often talk about how cancer patients are desexualized. Do you feel like that’s changing the more people speak out?
I don't know that it’s changing per se. I think my barometer for a change in this area is seeing a breast cancer patient featured in a commercial, movie, magazine etc and it have nothing to do with that they have breast cancer. So, I think we have a long way to go. I am waiting for the day that I see double mastectomy scars in a sex scene.
You’ve been described as a ‘topless activist’, tell us more about your decision behind this and why it’s important for you. How have people responded to it?
I feel most comfortable topless or naked even, so personally there's that. I feel so much more honest when I'm topless and naked. I say topless activism as a way of showing that I'm unafraid and unapologetic in my existence, a direct action against the structures that would rather I hide in self-loathing or behind respectability. I take my shirt off because the world says femme identifying or presenting folks or people with breasts are supposed to wear a shirt, but not in my world.
There’s a lot of different slogans and catchphrases that surround breast cancer survivors, but what does being one mean to you?
I think it's weird to make my chronic illness mean something more than what it is--an illness. It's fine if it's just cancer and doesn't mean anything about me. Stella Young, a famous comedian and journalist who also happens to be permanently in a wheelchair says, "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much." She also coined the phrase "inspirational porn" because people are always looking at people with chronic illnesses and disabilities like we need to be a source or light of courage for abled-bodied people.
When it comes to breast cancer awareness, what do you feel people are not talking about, but should be?
Sex, pleasure and only talking about breast cancer and not the whole person.
What are some assumptions people make about those who have experienced cancer that you feel are counterproductive?
That we're gonna die faster than the rest of the world/it's a death sentence. It's counterproductive to relate to breast cancer survivors as inspirations because we don't live with nipples (the fucking things aren't even used half the time!) or because we lose our hair and no longer live up to this capitalist, white supremacist patriarchal standard of beauty, we're useless. Or because we prevail or survive or exist beyond those terms, to some extent, now it's like "Oh my god, you're an inspiration". Fuck that, I'm not an inspiration. I've never conformed to capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy so now that I've gone through breast cancer you acknowledge that as a feat? Commend me for never wanting to be a part of capitalist white supremacist patriarchy, pre-diagnosis.
Can you talk about what it was like when you went to look for examples of black women who had a double mastectomy and couldn’t find any? What do you think can change that homogeneity?
It felt familiar. I'm used to looking at media outlets, literature, magazines, movies, my neighborhoods, my schools and not seeing myself represented. Sometimes I don't even know. Why do people ask me how can we change the fact that Black people are not centered in breast cancer advocacy? Isn't the answer simple: just do it.
How do you think cancer research advocates can most meaningfully change to involve more voices, including the queer community, POC, and WOC?
We shouldn't be considered "more" voices. We shouldn't be a diversity quota. We should not be an afterthought when research organizations conveniently remember that queer and POC and WOC people exist. The work isn't for cancer survivors to do. The authoritative structures, the medical industry, donors, large non profits who benefit from the perpetuation of this disease, they know what to do. They've always known. It has not been a priority, so I think this question is for them, not me.
Ericka Hart photographed by Chloe Horseman in Brooklyn.
To hear more from Ericka, check our her decolonized podcast, Hoodrat to Headwrap, on iTunes and Soundcloud, and head to her instagram, @ihartericka.
Every week this month we’ll be featuring a different woman’s story with breast cancer, and 100% of the profits from our Dusty Rose leggings and Paloma bra will go right to the Breast Cancer Research Fund while our supplies last. But what more can you do? Get a mammogram, talk to your friends, and listen to those who know. The more we talk about it, the more we encourage each other to take care of themselves, the more we take care of each other.