Danielle Ripley-Burgess is a two-time colon cancer survivor first diagnosed at age 17, an award-winning communications professional and the author of Blush: How I barely survived 17. She writes and speaks to encourage others that faith can survive. Also, she bakes a really good chocolate chip cookie. Follow her blog at DanielleRipleyBurgess.com or connect on social media at @DanielleisB.
When my friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, my role became supporter over survivor.
“Danielle, I found a lump. I know it’s cancer.”
That’s how one of the most unexpected calls of my life began earlier this year. As a storyteller who has spent years telling cancer patients’ stories, and a cancer survivor myself, I didn’t think anything could catch me by surprise.
I was wrong.
Earlier this year, my dear friend Anjee Davis told me she had breast cancer. The world stopped spinning for a second and it took my breath away. How could this be? Not Anjee.
I’d met her many years prior when the organization we both worked for, Fight Colorectal Cancer, was growing. She’d been hired to run programs and needed a communications director. From a business sense, she recruited me. When looking at it through a nonprofit lens, she invited me into something world changing. She’d just dreamed up an awareness campaign for March—Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. She called it One Million Strong and asked me to help her build it.
I dove right in.
Side by side, our lives revolved around every March. We worked hard to champion those we called “strong”—those who’d heard, “It’s cancer” either as a patient, caregiver or loved one. We tapped into survivors’ emotions and needs to discern how to best help them. We unpacked caregivers’ fears. We had long discussions about how to inspire those who had been dealt a tough hand to take action themselves. We poured hours of our lives into creating spaces and events where advocates could find purpose in their pain, and community with one another.
Every March, it was time for the survivors to shine.
As moms and wives, we were juggling the same things—not only jobs, but family too. Over time, we grew from passionate colleagues into dear friends. We celebrated not only organizational successes but moments of personal growth and healing. As a cancer survivor working in full-time cancer advocacy, I faced several dark moments. Anjee helped me through the triggers and complexities of survivorship. Never did I imagine that one day the tables would turn.
Instead of being the patient, I became the friend. Instead of surviving, I supported.
Anjee would often call to explain her scans, surgeries and decisions about reconstruction. Although very familiar with cancer I was learning a new lingo. There are commonalities in all of cancer, but each cancer type is unique. My colon cancer and her breast cancer were two different ball games and they needed different things.
Thanks to Nikki, a close family member with a recent breast cancer diagnosis, I had some practice in supporting a survivor fighting a different cancer type than mine. Anjee’s diagnosis continued to teach me how to support. She didn’t call to hear how I got through cancer, she called for a listening ear. She needed a space to air her emotions and be reassured it’s OK and that she had the strength to fight. This required me to take off my “patient hat” and simply be an empathetic friend.
As a leading cancer advocate, Anjee applied her skills and passion to her own cancer. She found great doctors and made proactive, hard decisions. Being open about her situation allowed her to set important boundaries. Receiving others’ support and care led to her hitting the recovery road quickly.
Thankfully, she’s now doing well now. She’s even telling her story.
Anjee and I are still advocating for colorectal cancer together in addition to chatting about family and life. We’re dreaming, as always, that this March is the best one yet. But this year, and what I plan on becoming every year, I’m taking a pause to be more intentional about celebrating October. Why? Because I’ve learned what being a good friend to a cancer survivor takes. And this month, it looks like making sure Anjee, Nikki and other breast cancer survivors, get their time to shine.