Cocktails And Cancer: A Podcast Where Girlfriends Celebrate Life
Michelle James and Danielle Brown, also known as MJ and Dani, have been friends for more than 13 years. They met working in media and didn’t click immediately, but eventually managed to get past their differences once they discovered that they actually complement each other well. The New York City-based best friends, who also happen to be sorority sisters (AKA’s), have been riding for each other for a while, but they never expected that a breast cancer diagnosis would be the catalyst for a new venture, a podcast called Cocktails and Cancer.
When MJ was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, just short of her 40th birthday party, both women sprang into action with plans to kick cancer’s butt once the shock of the news sank in.
“When I first heard [the test] was positive, I called my mom and I cried for a second. I cried from the shock of it,” James told MadameNoire. “And then once I did that, I felt like, ‘Okay now I’m going to take care of it.’ It was like, you messed with the wrong chick today! I had that kind of attitude.”
January 2019 marked three years of James being cancer-free, but the healing process isn’t over. Part of that process for James and Brown includes talking about what they’ve been through, and Cocktails and Cancer is how they get their message of love, health, and friendship out to the world. They come together weekly to discuss a variety of topics, from healthcare to dating, with hilarious anecdotes and raucous commentary, but it all circles back to celebrating life and inspiring others to take their health seriously. Here, we chat with the dynamic duo about what it’s like to live with and survive breast cancer, and why telling their stories through their podcast, which launched in the spring, is important.
MadameNoire (MN): Your energy is infectious so I can see how you ended up starting a podcast. Talk about how Cocktails and Cancer came to be.
Michelle James (MJ): In 2015, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. The kind of cancer that I had, my oncologist recommended chemotherapy and in the beginning, I told Dani it was probably nothing, but they did the biopsy and it’s malignant, it’s positive. Dani was one of the first people I called, and then I’m like, “It’s positive,” and it was just silence for like a long time. It was probably like maybe some seconds but it felt like it was a long time and she’s talking to me, but she’s crying at the same time and I’m just like, “Don’t worry, you know we’re going to get through this we’re going to you know, we’re going to figure this out,” and that was my attitude from the very beginning. When I called Dani I was like, ‘We’re going to figure this out’ and she was right by my side. She was definitely my rock and one of the key support systems throughout my chemotherapy. Then I had radiation and you know people forget sometimes that once you’ve been diagnosed, you’re always going through something, so even now, three years later, I’m on tamoxifen, which is a cancer drug that reduces your estrogen, because my cancer was estrogen-sensitive.
I didn’t want to share [my diagnosis] broadly. I really wanted to keep it to a handful of friends and family because I didn’t want to be treated differently. I’m about my work and I’m about my business so regardless of what I’m going through I’m just gonna handle my business, so I really kept it to small circles. January of 2019 marked three years of me being cancer-free. I had been reading articles about Black women dying at a higher rate because Black women get diagnoses at Stage 3 and 4 because we take care of everyone else before we take care of ourselves. So, the podcast popped in my mind. I said, “I’m going to do a podcast. I’m going to call it Cocktails and Cancer,” and that morning, I had posted on social media, telling everyone I know that I’m three years cancer-free and I’m ready to talk about it and I’m gonna launch a podcast called Cocktails and Cancer. Then, I called Dani and said, I’m launching a podcast called Cocktails and Cancer and I want you to be my co-host.
Dani (DB): I was in shock because it was a stark difference from how she started, how MJ mentioned she didn’t want anybody to know. She had her select people brought into the circle of trust when she was going through that, so to go from don’t tell anyone to, “Did you see my post on Instagram this morning?” I was like “Oh s–t! And you know, I told her, I know how personal it was to her, and like she already mentioned, she’s about her business, but perception is reality for her and she wants to be perceived as the most knowledgeable, the most put together, the most efficient person in the room, and I think that for a long time she believed that people would view her differently if they knew that she had been diagnosed with cancer.
So, even three years later, it was like, okay finally, she was going to tell the story, and I was so proud of her, and when she said, “I’m doing this podcast, and I want you to be a part of it,” I was like, “Yeah, I’m here for it!” Not only because I was looking forward to being on this journey with her, and being by her side, but because I was so proud of the decision that she had made to finally tell her story, and it was almost like an admission of knowing that cancer doesn’t define you. Having had cancer does not make you any less of a woman. If anything, it’s shown just how well you can and do live life. So, I was super proud of her and happy to be on the journey with her.
MamameNoire: That is awesome! Michelle, were there other women in your family who dealt with cancer?
MJ: No. I was the first woman in my family to have been diagnosed. I talked about it in one of the episodes. I took the BRCA test one and two, which looks at 34 different genes and if you’re predisposed to have cancer, and mine came back negative. So, it was important that we get our message out that a lot of cancers are what they call environmental if there is no hereditary reason for you, and that’s why the BRCA test is so important. A lot of people don’t even know about this test. It’s expensive, but it literally allows you to see, oh, yes, you have these genes and you know the likelihood of cancer coming back could be 10%, 50%, a hundred percent, and in mine was zero. So, I attributed it to all the TV dinners we ate in the 80s [laughs]. All the processed foods. There’s so many and because it’s environmental, it could be attributed to anything. It could be the wires you’re driving by one day.
MadameNoire: Or your lipstick for all we know!
MJ: Exactly, right! Think about how many recalls of food that there are. There are so many different things that it could be attributed to so mine was environmental. So, for a lot of people, like even in my family—I think that’s another thing. Like, I was keeping quiet and what I realized is, keeping quiet is what’s killing our community. We don’t talk about it then you’ll find out later on that your aunt had a certain illness that she never told anybody about. It’s a secret and I was like, I cannot be a part of the cycle. I gotta break the cycle. I gotta use my voice to say something and Dani, she was the ultimate caregiver. She was that person that understood me and was there through the whole process. I thought she would make the perfect co-host and you know, Dani talks a lot [laughs].
MadameNoire: I’ve read this and heard accounts from people who have dealt with cancer about how people around you might get weird. Like, you’re the one with cancer but you might find yourself consoling other people or you might find that some friends distance themselves from you. Obviously wasn’t the case with you and Danielle so what worked about Danielle support during your time?
MJ: You know, Dani talked about this a lot. I want her to talk about this.
Dani: What’s interesting is, I’m normally a very emotional person but the other day we were doing an interview on Positively Black, and Michelle said that she was not going to allow cancer to have a first-class seat. I thought that was so powerful because it’s the truth. She was like, “Listen it’s here in my life but It is not running the show.” It made me want to show up the way she needed me to show up. In other words, I could not come around and be crying all the time and sulking and it was like no, we are living and we’re living out loud. So, it’s like I’m going to have movie night at my house. And if you know MJ, movie night at her house is not the typical come inside and watch a movie. She rents a big ass screen in the backyard. She has chairs for everybody to sit in, she has cotton candy and popcorn. And so, I mean we’re still living strong and loud and it forced me to woman up if you will. I didn’t have time to go to the corner and cry because I was afraid.
It’s just a testament to how Dani chooses to live her life. But what this podcast has done for us, and for me is it’s almost like, sometimes when I’m talking to her I am reliving the whole journey again because I didn’t really live it then, if that makes sense. I had to suppress a lot of my emotions in order to to be there the way I knew she wanted me to, and I think that that’s part of being a caregiver is that sometimes we get so focused on living life the way that we want to live instead of asking the people who need us how they want us to show up. How can I support you? Because everybody doesn’t want to be supported in the same way.
MadameNoire: What have been some of your favorite show topics thus far? I love your chemistry because it feels like I’m listening to my own girlfriends talk in my living room.
MJ: It’s funny because I love all the episodes where Dani is so shocked with what I’m saying to her and she’s ready to go knock on somebody’s house door. Those have been so fun. It’s fun because it’s kind of like, you keep so much inside and then you realize, “Thank god I kept that inside [laughs].
Dani: Because you know, along the way there’s a lot of things that Michelle did not tell me, so there was one episode where she told me about something this woman that she used to work with, who I later found out I know, did to her. She said, “I can see your scalp, and I was like, what?” And the woman knew that Michelle was going through chemo, and I was so mad when Michelle told me that, and I wanted to go say something to the woman after that. It’s like, “Dude, watch your mouth! Watch your tone!” I’m very protective of my friends, so I think Michelle has found great pleasure in seeing me get excited about the fact that I would have been there to check somebody for her.
MJ: I do find great pleasure in that. I love those moments, there are several moments, but my favorite episodes are episodes 2, 4, and 10 are my favorite episodes. They’re my favorites because in those episodes there’s a connection that I can actually feel that is so far superior of a connection you can have with another person. So, it’s the episode where we’re talking about your self-breast exam and I’m looking at Dani, she’s looking at me and she says something like, “Well you found the lump in your breast, why the hell you looking at me!” So I’m like, “Let’s get it!” So, I just think the magical moments in that episode; and it was literally our second episode. In episode 4, Dani is telling a story, and she’s one of the best storytellers. If you listen to the podcast you’re gonna hear like, she’s telling a story and you want to get some popcorn and pull up a seat. She starts doing this weird lean and telling this story, anyway, when I go back and listen to it I’m crying laughing just the same way I was crying laughing when it was happening.
MadameNoire: Being that you actually do talk about health and support on the show, what advice do you have for people going through similar situations?
Dani: For me, the advice is to show up. We talk about that on the show; the importance of just showing up. And I think that’s in any relationship during any type of trial or tribulation. It’s like, sometimes we don’t know what to say. For example, a friend of mine’s husband just died and I don’t know what to say. I really don’t but I reach out every day saying that, “Hey, I’m just checking on you. I don’t know what to offer but I just want you to know that I’m there for you,” because sometimes people don’t even know what they need, but they need consistency and they need support in some form or fashion. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything, but just show up just be there that’s better than nothing. Pay attention to the person, follow their lead because we’re doing things that may not be best for them.
MJ: I agree with that and I was going to say don’t be afraid to have the conversation. Have the conversation with them, and it could be as easy as them sharing with you because you’re somebody that they trust. So feel free to say, “I’m here for you, I’m gonna be here no matter what.
MadameNoire: We’re in a space right now where there’s more of a conversation about Black woman’s health and how our experiences with doctors and health outcomes can be rooted in racial biases. MJ, talk about what your experience was like with your doctors.
MJ: I was blessed to have several doctors who had been in my life for a long time. My primary care physician, she’s the first person I called when I had a lump. It’s important for all women, especially Black women, to have a primary care doctor that you see over the years. A lot of people jump around or say, “Let me just go to the Urgent Care.” But no, you need to find a doctor that knows your body that knows you and know your history and that was that’s important. So, for me, I had that doctor. I also had a gynecologist who I’d been seeing for several years, and I went to see her because she wanted to feel the lumps. Basically, my core doctors knew what was going on.
The great thing is then, they were able to make a recommendation on what hospital they thought I should use and it just so happened that the two core doctors recommended the same surgeon who was tied to NYU, and they were able to tell me why they thought NYU was a good hospital for me. And even the doctor who is my gynecologist, who happens to be African-American, she said to me when I first saw her—she looked at the report from the biopsy and said, “I know you’re afraid and I don’t want you to be afraid. You’re going to die one day, but it’s not going to be from breast cancer,” and when she said that to me, it really empowered me because this was someone that I had built trust with. So her saying that made me feel like I got this.
I think it’s important, not just from a medical standpoint, but the mental health standpoint because the chemo is the physical, but there’s a lot of mental health, mental aspects of diagnosis that women should also have people in their lives to support them. So, I get over to NYU and have an oncologist, you have, have various nurses, you have your surgeon, and I found that for the most part, they provided superior care.
However, the BRCA test. I learned about that talking to a friend who was a male who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and he was telling me that his daughter was taking the BRCA test, and I was like, “What is that?” And he was like, “You haven’t heard about that?” So, I immediately called my doctor and asked why no one told me about it. And so, no matter what, you have to also own your healthcare. You have to own your wellness. Research, be in the know as much as you can. We’re not doctors but you have to know as much as you can so that if there is something that you haven’t heard about, you can ask about it. Of course, they gave me the test, but my doctor said I didn’t have a family history, so that’s what it wasn’t top on their radar but you can have this test. I’m like, I don’t have a family history but that doesn’t mean—I’m from a Black family, and they might not have shared that someone in the family may have died from cancer. I spoke earlier about medical secrets. Black families aren’t always sharing. I want to know if i’m predisposed to anything because that could make the decision of if I’m going to have a mastectomy, a double mastectomy, or a lumpectomy.
MadameNoire: Lastly, what do you guys want people to take away from the podcast?
Dani: I want people to take away the importance of expression and connection. We get so caught up in living that we don’t spend enough time connecting and paying attention to one another and I believe that what MJ and I do well on the podcast is spend time with one another and speaking and engaging with each other out loud for the world to see. It’s really like an appointment with MJ, and we just catch up on the mic and share some pertinent information and some shit that’s going on with us during the week. It’s just that simple and so my hope is that our love and appreciation for each other and the connection that we make with one another, but also the connection that we make with the audience encourages the audience to connect and to express and to take care of themselves.