“It’s not a death sentence.” Erika Hart teams up with Ralph Lauren’s Pink Pony Campaign for Breast Cancer Awareness month.

By Lizzy Zarrello.

After launching in 2000, the Pink Pony Campaign by Ralph Lauren is continuing this October. The campaign is dedicated to raising funds for cancer care and ensuring treatment support for breast cancer survivors through the Pink Pony clothing collection. The campaign features breast cancer survivor Ericka Hart, a black queer femme activist, writer, and educator. After being diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer at 28, Hart has advocated for intersectional cancer survivors, patients, and future patients. 

Below, Hart opens up about their experience with cancer, remission, and their collaboration with the Pink Pony campaign. 

Lizzy Zarrello: I know that you have a family history of cancer. Tell me about your experience and how that’s influenced your work?

Ericka Hart: My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in the second grade, and I didn’t understand because I was young. I just understood my mom was sick. For most of my life with her, she was navigating cancer appointments. When her cancer metastasized to her lungs and eventually her liver, I was old enough to understand what was happening; to see her go through chemotherapy again. A big part of my work has stemmed from my heartbreak; my mom’s no longer here and not knowing what support and institutional advances she didn’t receive that could have helped her. Treatment advances were in their early stages when she passed, but I still wonder how medical racism played a role in her experiences.  

LZ: How do you feel your fight with cancer has differed from that of a straight, cisgender white woman?

EH: I think it’s differed in many ways. One way is most of October is centered around women and breasts, connecting to their breasts as some sexual focal point, or a moment in their gender experience where they became a woman. I don’t identify as a woman, so it always felt strange to me. I understand where it originated, especially as a sex educator, but it felt strange to have this huge marketing campaign only directed to one demographic.

When I thought about breast cancer, my mom’s image came to mind. But so did a white, middle-class woman with an island in her kitchen and several kids, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it devastated her whole world, and that was not my experience. 

When I was diagnosed, I was about to be married; I was broke, living in Brooklyn, trying to make ends meet. I didn’t have health insurance or any examples that guided me through this experience. Once I got health insurance and worked with doctors, there was little to no education on how they should deal with me being queer and nonbinary. Nobody was asking for my pronouns. This is all the work I’ve done with my medical team. The knowledge they have of it now—it’s because of me and perhaps their other queer patients—but it wasn’t happening when I stepped into those hospitals. 

LZ: What do you hope to bring to the Pink Pony Campaign that we haven’t previously seen?

EH: I hope to bring the presence of nonbinary, Black, gender variant, and queer people who experience cancer. Many cancer campaigns are directed at one audience. It’s affirming to be included and to be seen in that way. I hope [through Pink Pony]other cancer survivors and future cancer patients can see themselves and do the necessary checkups.

LZ: How did the partnership with Pink Pony come about, and what do you hope to achieve this time? 

EH: I worked with Pink Pony last year, and that was a profound experience. I enjoyed the questions, the intentional work, and the consideration around the project. Also, being around those impacted directly by cancer, even folks on the crew shared their experiences. I want to continue bringing the same message. I don’t think it’s emphasized enough the importance of talking about and doing the work to get rid of medical racism in this country. It impacts many people of marginalized identities, where access to health insurance or affirming medical care is a privilege. To allow people to have those experiences without trepidation, with full trust in institutions that have historically and present-day harmed Black people and POC’s. 

LZ: Now that you’re in remission, is there a piece of advice you would give to yourself before your diagnosis? 

EH: Two things, one: cancer isn’t a death sentence. No one knows when they’ll die. People will relate to you to having some sort of death sentence on your forehead, don’t let that impact you. Two, it’s ongoing; even in remission, you have to get MRIs, checkups, see your oncologist, medical, and care team. You can’t stop caring for your body because you’re in remission. There are no cures for cancer; it’s constantly something to check on and get second opinions. 

LZ: How do you hope to influence other intersectional survivors of breast cancer? 

EH: I hope to empower them. You have to advocate for yourself. When you’re vulnerable and navigating a new diagnosis or being diagnosed more than once, it’s challenging also to have to fight for what you need. I hope to provide encouragement. Although it’s challenging and not fair, you have to fight for yourself and get a community around you to support you on this journey. If you can’t have a conversation with an oncologist because they’re using a lot of medical phrasing and you’re unfamiliar, who can come with you to ask more questions? Do you have a therapist? Because your friends, family, and loved ones can’t hold all of that if they’ve never experienced it. Even if they have, they have their own unique experience. That’s the advice I would leave folks with, don’t try to strong-arm this and do it on your own. 

LZ: Finally, do you think the Pink Pony Campaign has created a sense of community? 

EH: Yeah, I think it has. It’s not just a company that’s selling clothes; they’re dedicated to advocacy. People see that. People want to have another space to find resources and support. It makes a difference.

Images courtesy of Ralph Lauren.