Days after her 40th birthday in November 2015, Hopkinsville native Michelle James found a lump in her breast. Weeks later she learned the tumor was malignant. She had breast cancer.

Three years later, James is cancer-free and sharing her journey in a podcast called "Cocktails and Cancer" with her best friend, Dani Brown. Launched during Women's History Month, the podcast is broadcast at https://soundcloud.com/cocktailsandcancer and @cocktailsandcancer on Instagram and Facebook. All the podcasts are free to listen.

"We're sharing our story in a different way and making the discussion of cancer so that people can have that conversation that they are so afraid to have with their family and friends," said the 1994 Christian County High School graduate. "We are really excited about the response we've been receiving."

The focus of the podcast is to uplift, inspire and educate women about breast cancer. The American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging recommended in 2018 that black women be added to groups considered at high risk for breast cancer for the first time. "The overall rates of breast cancer in black and white women are about the same, black women are 20 percent to 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer," according to a release.

"This message is for everyone," James said. "The year I was diagnosed, 30,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer. That doesn't account for those who go undiagnosed."

AFTER THE DIAGNOSIS

"You decide how you want to attack this journey. You decide what your journey's going to look like," James said in episode 1 of the podcast.

Researching breast cancer and complying with the doctors' advice was the priority for James after her diagnosis.

"When I heard 'you have cancer' all I heard was 'I need to get this disease out of my body,' " she said.

James underwent a lumpectomy, six months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation. She had chemo treatments on Thursday, stayed home on Friday and went back to work on Monday. Through it all she had support from her employer and her friends.

"It was important for me that my inner circle see what I was going through," she said. "I would have people come to chemo and sit with me -- it took about four hours ... I surrounded myself with people I trusted -- people I knew would uplift me. Then, I kept everything else normal."

THE MESSAGE

"January 14, 2019, I posted on social media that I was three years cancer free and that I was going to launch the podcast to talk about my journey," James said. "For me, it was important -- as I reflected and as I started to feel like myself again -- that I communicate to others and inspire and empower them through information so they know 'you can do it too. You can survive this.' "

James wanted an intimate platform that would make a personal connection with listeners as a resource for information. Ten podcast episodes are planned for Season 1 of "Cocktails and Cancer." Each episode is recorded in either James' or Brown's living room. To date, three episodes have aired.

"At any given day somebody can go back and listen to an episode that resonates with them," James said. "Podcasting seems like the right platform ... Sometimes you want something to listen to make you laugh, to make you feel something, to make a connection."

Part of that connection stems from the bond between James and Brown. The women met in 2006 when both worked in the sales/marketing department at Essence magazine. In each podcast episode, the friends talk about their experiences after James' diagnosis.

"I don't think I could have done this podcast with anyone else. More than the natural choice, she was the only choice. If I didn't have her to co-host with me it would be a totally different podcast," James said. "The podcast, in addition to us educating people about cancer, it's about friendship."

The podcast name, "Cocktails and Cancer," has personal meaning for James. With her oncologist's permission, she indulged in an occasional cocktail to help her feel like herself during treatment.

"Cancer takes a lot away from you. It takes your confidence. A lot of times it takes your beauty because you lose your eyelashes, your eyebrows, your hair. It's important to find something that's uniquely you. For me, when I go out, I like to have a cocktail," James said. "When I thought about the name -- 'Cocktail' is really about celebration of life and living your life. The 'Cancer' part of the name is the information we

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give out and the stories we tell working to inspire and empower the listeners."

Part of that empowerment comes from knowledge. Podcast topics include chemotherapy, doctors, hair and skin care.

"We have a mix of harder conversations and lighter conversations. Throughout, we try to have a balance between the light and the dark, so to speak," James said.

In episode 1, Brown talks about reaching people through the podcast discussions.

"We live in this world where we're always focused on a screen and sometimes we need to take a minute and stop and focus on each other ... and connect with one another," she said. "This moment is about connection and we want to connect with you."

GOING FORWARD

Although she is cancer free, "once you're diagnosed, you are considered high risk," James said. For that reason, she said it is important for people to pay attention to their health and their bodies and visit their doctors regularly.

"If you feel a lump. If you feel a pain. Go see your doctor and ask for an examination. Ask for a biopsy so you know for sure. It really can be the difference between life and death," she said.

For the past 19 years of her life, James has lived in the New York City area. She works at Fuse Media in the heart of Midtown in the Big Apple. About four times a year, she returns to Hopkinsville to visit her mother and brother. She hopes her Kentucky family and friends tune in to the podcasts each week.

"If you are looking to be inspired by a story. If you are looking to learn more about cancer. If you have been touched by cancer ... If (you) want a real heartfelt story, 'Cocktails and Cancer' is for (you)," James said. "The power of the podcast (is) ... people see three years later there's so much light at the end of the tunnel."

Reach Michele Vowell at 270-887-3242 or mvowell@kentuckynewera.com.

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