Self-portraits by Danielle Doby
Photography by Britney Gill Photography
“You’re too young. It’s just your anxiety.”
In the two years leading up to her cancer diagnosis, time and time again, Danielle Doby listened to these dismissive sentences slip through doctors’ mouths. Neurologists, family physicians, naturopaths, specialists—it didn’t matter what field; Doby could anticipate a health care professional discounting her lived experience as she searched for answers relating to her well-being.
“All of my questions continued to be met with pushback about my young age, healthy appearance and mental health,” says the 36-year-old Dallas-based storyteller and artist. “I found myself caught in the space between doubting my relationship with my body and knowing something wasn’t right.”
Doby’s grandmother eventually suggested a reiki and craniosacral therapy session. Feeling as though she had nothing left to lose at that point, Doby booked an appointment for the healing energy technique. It was during this session when a reiki master would stop to hover her hands over Doby’s sternum, pointing to the right side of her chest, and tell her, “Here. Right here is where you begin.”
At the time, Doby didn’t entirely grasp what the reiki master meant. But when she learned a few months later that a mass in her right breast was stage IIIB triple negative breast cancer, she finally understood.
When Doby was born, her grandmother pulled together Doby’s numerology and natal chart, as was her tradition for every member of the family. When Doby was a teenager, she came across her grandmother’s journal entries about the findings that left a lasting impression.
“She is the one who instilled wonder in me, teaching me that I am as big and expansive as the mystery above me, and I was created with purpose,” explains Doby. “And this purpose is connected to something much larger than myself alone.”
In this context, Doby’s position as a storyteller and advocate was seemingly written in the stars. Prior to her diagnosis, Doby garnered a steady following online for her vulnerable writing and poetry. Sharing the news of her breast cancer diagnosis with the community in her corner of the internet felt nearly natural for her.
“Everything I do and create is deeply rooted from this space,” she says. “Stories can help us widen our lens to an experience other than our own or pull us in closer to remind us that we are not alone. Whether it be through awareness or a gentle hand squeeze to someone else traveling their own cancer journey, I only hope that by sharing my story it serves others.”
The importance of togetherness for Doby was strengthened after going through treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. She cites it as what got her through some of the darkest, heaviest moments in her cancer journey.
When a full moon fell on the eve of her bilateral mastectomy surgery, Doby’s friends coordinated a Zoom call featuring wigs, singing and tears to guide her through a “release ritual,” a celebration of Doby as she bid farewell to her breasts. She also credits her still being here to the doctors, nurses, medical staff and volunteers relentless in their quest of providing compassionate care.
“In treatment, I experienced profound loneliness and isolation, pain that brought me down to my knees and grief so large and unavoidable that the only thing left to do was let it all in and feel it,” says Doby. “At the same time, I also experienced a joy so untamed it felt like freedom. I moved through fears and found how strong I am, and in the year of death and pain and choosing sides, I was a witness to what it really means to live a life beyond yourself—how we are responsible for and to each other as a community.”
For young adults especially, a cancer diagnosis can present as your flesh and bones’ ultimate betrayal. When in the supposed “prime” of your life, any situation that suggests otherwise feels not only unfair, but terrifying too.
Doby approaches her cancer journey with grace now, though this wasn’t always the case. After the immediate swirling whirlwind following her diagnosis, Doby felt herself begin to spiral as she took up her new residence within the “ecosystem” of cancer.
“Everything I had ignored and shoved to the side to deal with later started to resurface on its own terms. It felt like frantically digging your hands deep into the dry earth searching for water,” she explains. “I was searching for some sense of ease or clarity or promise in it all. It was in this desperation [that] I suffered.”
This feeling of deep discomfort, of not knowing what is coming next, is easy to avoid confrontation with—until you no longer have a choice but to face the music and, beyond even that, not just accept it but actively survive it.
“What I ended up learning from this wasn’t something I wanted to hear at first and, over time, became one of the many lessons I was to receive from my experience: There will not always be an answer,” says Doby.
Letting go of control and absolving the need for an answer or a reason allowed Doby to regain an active role in her own story again after feeling like an outside viewer watching a reel of her life. She realized she did have autonomy—she did indeed have a choice in all of this.
While Doby didn’t choose to have cancer, she could choose how she navigated this unknown realm.
“I may not know how or why I got cancer, or what would happen next. But I was free to choose what the word ‘healing’ meant for me,” explains Doby. “Healing, in its essence, does not ask us to show up and be unshakeable and perfect—it only asks us to be vulnerable and truthful. I know now that I can both grieve and rejoice. I can be brave and fearful. I can hold gratitude and loss in the same hand. The same with rage and tenderness. I can be all of these things and still be in the work of my own healing, at the same time.”
Self-care has transformed into something extra special for Doby since cancer. Throughout treatment, she’d practice yoga, collect eye-catching wigs or dance in her chemo chair—anything to encapsulate small joys within stretches of distressing days. It’s all a part of the bigger picture for her: being alive.
“After having experienced cancer, the term self-care has taken on new meaning for me,” she says. “Now, I only ask myself the question: How can I become more free in my body? Whatever the answer is, I move towards creating that.”
For Doby, creating art has always been a cathartic experience. Writing, she says, is a gift to herself that frees her from carrying heavy experiences all on her own. To put something out into the world is a vital act of liberation.
Doby’s first book “I Am Her Tribe” is a poetry collection centered on the viral hashtag of the same name, exploring its potential as an empowering method of storytelling and connection. The collection was published prior to her cancer journey, and the creative process for Doby’s next two books—a poetry collection and a poetic memoir about the cancer journey—looks a bit different now due to the lasting effects of treatment.
“When words come to me, I document them quickly with what my energy allows in the moment. Sometimes this is a voice memo, sometimes a pen and journal, and sometimes it is in my phone notes,” says Doby. “Needless to say, this makes organizing a book quite interesting. The stories I am writing now are the stories I have always wanted to write—and what a privilege it is to be alive to tell them.”
Adjusting to survivorship has been a lesson to Doby in the timelessness of illness and grief, in the way that trials and tribulations can reshape us long after their presence is detected. And it doesn’t have to be a calamity forever.
On the altar in Doby’s home sits a small silver bell, gifted to her by a friend after her last day of treatment. It is situated next to her framed surgical papers that detail her official day of remission. Beside those papers is an excerpt of lyrics from the Leonard Cohen song “Anthem:”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
“Much like grief, I do not believe that cancer ever truly leaves us,” Doby says. “There are brief moments I forget it happened, and then there are moments where it is an all-consuming memory. All proof that change on a molecular level existed within me; I will never be the same. This, too, is a miracle. May everything have the privilege of being broken open at one time or another in their lifetime.”
Danielle Doby is a storyteller, artist and author based in Dallas, Texas. She is currently working on her next two books. Learn more about Doby at danielledoby.com and on her Instagram at @danielledoby.