Imagine meeting up with your homegirls after work for happy hour, or on Sunday afternoon for brunch. Catching up over some cocktails and ki-ki’s with our girls is usually the highlights of our weeks. But can you remember the last time a serious topic like cancer was put on the table?

Having discussions about cancer doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. It can, and actually should, be an opportunity to reflect on the highs and lows and celebrate life with those closest to us. Michelle James, affectionately known as MJ, and Danielle Brown (aka Dani) are the creators of Cocktails & Cancer – a weekly podcast giving us a peek into their friendship and how its helped MJ face a grim diagnosis. The hosts promise us “laughter, tears, a whole lot of loving truth-telling” as they sip on their favorite cocktails.

The cocktail element has more meaning than you might think. MJ, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2015, wanted to maintain a semblance of normalcy while undergoing chemotherapy. The severe side effects of chemo can sometimes make patients feel out of their element, but having an occasional cocktail (with her doctor’s approval) helped her feel like herself again.

MJ (who has been cancer-free for three years) eventually approached Dani to be her co-host for Cocktails & Cancer, which launched on March 13th. Every week, these BFF’s get together to discuss what’s happening in their lives. MJ often talks about various topics that have impacted her during the journey. “Prior to my diagnosis, December 2015, I really, really put my professional career first,” she told ESSENCE. “I’ve missed weddings and family reunions because I was focused on being the best marketing executive that I could be.”

The seriousness of her illness began putting things into perspective. She remembers coming to the realization that she was sort of like Neo in The Matrix. “I started paying attention to people that I was making deposits into and questioning if they were they making a deposit back into me. Like, what is the true identity of the relationship?”

One friendship that proved to be strong as ever was with MJ’s good friend Dani, who was one of the first people MJ called after finding out she had cancer. After sticking by her friend’s side through every chemotherapy appointment and emotional hurdle, Dani began to re-evaluate how she was showing up in friendships. “It taught me a lesson in being present,” she says. “Every minute that I’m with [MJ], every moment that we spend together, even when she’s getting on my last nerve, I am grateful.”

Their podcast is no doubt a hit. They’re currently boasting a five-star rating on Apple podcasts. One subscriber review calls them, “one of the funniest, most endearing, and relatable duos in podcasting.” It takes a certain kind of special to turn a topic like cancer into a lighthearted hour of laughs, but MJ and Dani say they’re driven by a unique purpose. “There’s a lot of negative thoughts around breast cancer that’s killing our community,” MJ says. “[You think] ‘I don’t want anyone to pity me’ or ‘I don’t want this to impact me professionally.’ What I’ve realized is by not sharing, I’m buying into those stereotypes. It’s my duty as a human being to share because God has given me the opportunity to continue my life and tell my story.”

According to the CDC, breast cancer death rates are 40% higher among Black women than white women, even though we have lower incident rates. So the premise of Cocktails & Cancer is no doubt an important and timely one. Dani wants the podcast to be a safe space for Black women to shed their Superwoman exterior and feel ok being open. “The real strength is in being vulnerable and then, being willing to share,” Dani says.

Cocktails & Cancer season one will wrap after episode 10. But as the popularity of the podcast climbs at an impressive rate, MJ and Dani are thinking of ways to expand their passion project to other mediums while never forgetting to put their friendship first. “I know I can be intense about work,” MJ confesses “so I want to make sure that I have those quiet moments with [Dani], drinking expensive New York City cocktails, and enjoying our sisterhood.”


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