When Michelle James, 43, and Danielle Brown, 42, became ‘ride or die’ friends some 13 years ago, little did they know how prophetic that phrase would come to be in their lives. The two met when they were both on the come-up in the media industry. They worked at the same magazine for years. And they just happened to be sorority sisters (AKAs). The fact that they are the “yin” to the other’s “yang” (Michelle—or MJ—is an A-type personality and perpetual planner who takes no prisoners when it comes to her business; Danielle—Dani to her friends—is the warm and fuzzy, in her feelings, emotive one) only fueled the bonds of their friendship that much more, as opposite attractions often do.
They’ve become besties who do mostly everything together. So on that fateful day in December 2015, just days after MJ’s 40th birthday bash, when a pea-sized lump she’d discovered in her breast while showering and gone to get checked out turned out to be malignant, Dani was one of the first people who knew. “I told my mama, I called my man, and then I told Dani,” says MJ of the hardest reveal of her life. And then, true to her nature, MJ set to work kicking the disease’s butt, while deciding to keep the circle of those-in-the-know tight, choosing to not share her diagnosis with most of her family, friends, and colleagues. “After an initial ‘My time is up’ moment, I then looked at it like I would anything else—I’ve got to do what I need to do to get this cancer out of my body, while continuing to live my life as closely to how I had always lived it. I wanted to keep it moving, and I didn’t want people to treat me differently. I needed to still be me.” Part of being herself involved still being able to enjoy cocktails with her unsuspecting friends. When she got the “ok” from her doctor to occasionally indulge, she had a semblance of the normalcy that she needed to face cancer head-on—as a condition she needed to deal with and conquer, rather than as a defining, fatal sentence.
As one of MJ’s few insiders, Dani was with her girl every step of her three year journey, which included six months of chemo, five weeks of radiation, breast cancer surgery, and months of continuous rounds of follow-ups and screenings that ultimately confirmed that MJ was cancer-free. “I was devastated when MJ first told me about her diagnosis,” Dani says. “Being the emotional one, I, of course, cried and asked MJ lots of questions that she didn’t have answers to, which terrified me for her. But then, I saw her determination to not give cancer center stage in her life by continuing to work and play as hard as she always had, despite the lows during her treatments. I knew I had to get my ish together and get on with being her friend as well as her support—just as I had been before her diagnosis.” So when MJ finally got the “all clear” this past January and decided to “come out” about having had cancer via a podcast series, Dani didn’t hesitate when she was asked to sign on as co-host.
Their Cocktails and Cancer podcast was born from MJ’s desire to reshape the conversation around a difficult subject. “I realized that things could have gone very differently for me as I battled cancer, and I wanted to do something to help others experiencing the same emotions, fears, discomforts, and unknowns that I had while going through,” says MJ. “I knew if I didn’t share my story, I would be buying in to the stigmas that people place on cancer and its ‘victims.’ And if I was going to do it, I was going to do it at 150%, like I do everything else.” So she approached her podcast as she would if she were launching a show, just as she does in her work life. She reasoned, outside of the story of cancer (with cancer being another host on the show), a lot of her story was about friendship and connecting, and that’s the focus of the podcast. “Cancer manifests in different ways with different people, and it isn’t all about doom and gloom,” she says. “Lots of women are coming through this as champions and warriors, and Dani and I want to give them and anyone who has been touched by cancer an empowering, inspiring, educational, and celebratory space in which to laugh, cry, and embrace their truth about their cancer experience.”
Since launching their weekly Cocktails and Cancer podcast on March 13, the duo says the response has been overwhelming and affirming. Says Dani, “The podcast isn’t a conversation about surviving cancer. It’s about friendship, and living life, despite it being impacted by cancer. It’s light, with heavy moments that we embrace head-on, while sipping cocktails in celebration of listeners allowing themselves to be themselves, no matter where they are in their journey—just as MJ did, and continues to do.”
The show is available at cocktailsandcancer.com, and on SoundCloud and Apple Music.
Dawn M. Baskerville is a writer, editor, and pop culture junkie who lives in Brooklyn.