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The true story of a thrift shop coat

How it united one group of women with cancer in a quest to live differently.

Cynthia Thomas (A.K.A. Diane Keaton).

webb chappell

Cynthia Thomas (A.K.A. Diane Keaton).

webb chappell

Elaine Ducharme (A.K.A. Susan Sarandon)

In the cafeteria of the opulent Dana-Farber building — just past the Andy Warhol and Alex Katz artwork — I ate my usual pre-scan chocolate pudding, wrapped myself in my coat, and went for my MRI. They were checking on the status of my brain tumor. But this is not about me. It’s about the coat.

Having not had cancer for going on 10 years, I’d begun to think of it as something other people had. And then I’d remember: Oh, wait, I have cancer. Oh, wait, I have brain cancer.

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When I’ve been working on something creative for a while — for example, inventing a new dance that just might overtake Zumba in health clubs — my brain starts, for lack of a better word, buzzing. I can’t take in any more information, my heart starts beating rapidly, I’m anxious, and I’m angry with myself.

Wanting to weed out the workings in my brain, to distinguish between what was the tumor and what was my own anxiety, I thought meditation might help, and I bought a number of books on it. One happened to be written by Herbert Benson, a physician who founded the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, so I signed up for one of the institute’s programs for cancer patients.

I’m a not a naturally optimistic person. When I left the first class with an inch-thick booklet on psychoneuroimmunology — which looks at how our emotional states affect our general health and our immune system — I thought This is a lot of hoo-ha. But I was determined to clear out the static in my brain and resolved to do my best to get through it.

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During the second class, we went around the circle introducing ourselves and saying what type of cancer we had: one colon, one stomach, two brains, and the rest breast. The group isn’t usually composed of all women, but ours was. Many of us had high-powered jobs: a commercial banker, two pharmaceutical company bigwigs, and a Harvard researcher, to name just a few. All except one were still working.

I was seated next to a woman who looks a lot like Susan Sarandon. We started chatting during the class. We chatted our way out the door and onto the wintry streets of Boston. She said we should get together sometime. I said, “Actually, I’m free now.”

Neither of us knew the neighborhood, and the only places we could find were hockey bars, so we went into one. We hit it off.

The next week, class was canceled because of a blizzard, and the following week was a holiday, but Susan Sarandon and I didn’t want to wait that long to get together. So Susan — an artist and personal shopper — suggested we go to the Goodwill in my neighborhood. It was there that we saw the coat. It was big and saggy, tweed, with a black velvet collar. It had three sets of buttons and two mammoth pockets.

Susan tried on the coat, and she looked great. Then I tried on the coat, and I looked great. So Susan bought it, for 10 bucks, and we decided it should be for the group. It would be for anyone who’s having a procedure, Susan said, or anyone who just needs a hug. I went home with the coat.

***

BEFORE MY BRAIN SURGERY, I was a writer. The tumor was in my left frontal lobe, the area that controls language. All of a sudden I was no longer a writer. I could not have written the opening paragraph of this story. People said to me, “Why don’t you just dictate?” But writing is about thinking, and I had nothing in my head.

By the time I started the Benson class, I’d been having scans of my brain for more than 10 years. At first I was afraid the tumor was coming back, but after years of clear scans and increasing cognitive facility, I no longer had to struggle on the doctors’ tests challenging me to do things like think of as many words as I could that began with the letter “S.” I saw the quarterly scans more as an opportunity to eat my chocolate pudding and hang out with my neuro-oncology gang. One day, though, my scan didn’t have good news. The tumor was coming back and the next step was radiation, which was rotten, because I’d never felt better in my life.

For all those years, writing remained difficult for me, so much so that I had given up on the profession. For about eight years I coped with fatigue from the surgery, the chemo, and from an anti-seizure drug that zonked me out. When people asked, “So what do you do for a living?” I had no answer. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I started to feel like myself again, but writing would have been too much of a struggle, so I turned my attention to other things.

During my first week with the coat, though, something big happened. I wrote a thank you letter that I would not have written had it not been for the class, and it came out surprisingly well. I mean it was shockingly good.

I wore the coat to the group the next time and introduced it to the class. Susan and I explained how the coat had come to be and that it had prompted me to write a thank you letter that I normally wouldn’t have written. It was hard to tell what the group was thinking.

(If this were a screenplay, I decided, it would star me as Diane Keaton, along with Susan Sarandon, Alicia Keys, Halle Berry, Isabella Rossellini, Melissa McCarthy, and a Teutonic Judi Dench.)

No one had any procedures that week, so Alicia Keys took the coat. When I handed it over, I asked her to think about things she could do with the coat that she wouldn’t have done otherwise. That day in class, we’d written goals designed to help us reevaluate our priorities. Alicia wanted to play more with her kids, like she used to before she got cancer. She also wanted to strengthen her relationships. Armed with the coat, instead of staying home as she’d planned, she had a blast at a party her kids were attending, and she caught up with old friends. She was convinced it was the coat’s doing!

After our hockey-bar night, Susan started asking the rest of the group if they wanted to go out for beers after class. At first not many people could make it, but by the end of the 10-week class, just about the whole group was meeting for what I was calling the “after-party.” Isabella Rossellini dubbed us the Benson Babes; our go-to place was The Harp on Causeway Street.

The course at Benson was being led by staff psychologist Ann Webster, who also teaches at Harvard Medical School. She’s been working on a documentary about people in her Benson class who had been given death sentences and are still around today. During our final class, Ann’s videographer came to film the story of the coat. So we each stood up, wearing the coat, and described our history with it.

The coat had changed Alicia Keys’s life. Isabella Rossellini wore the coat and got the news that her tumors were shrinking. I wore it again and found out I didn’t have to have radiation yet. Susan said she felt the love of the group every time she put it on. I just needed the coat, said Halle Berry. Judi Dench hadn’t taken the coat yet but was leaving with it, and ended up getting good news on her scan. That left just one class regular who’d never worn the coat: Melissa McCarthy.

She’d come to our final class carrying a big cake, telling us not to look at it. Once we’d gone around the circle telling our coat stories, Melissa stood up and said to the videographer, “Follow me.” Then she unveiled the cake. It was a replica of the coat. We were stunned. We erupted with joy. We cried. All at the same time.

Several people mentioned to me that it was like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a novel about four teenagers who share a pair of jeans. I would roll my eyes and say: “Yes, but that was fiction. This is fact.”

Though the class ended in April, we haven’t stopped meeting. Every week it’s at another person’s house. We meditate, talk about issues we’re having with cancer, and otherwise try to incorporate something we learned in the class.

On the hottest day in June, Melissa McCarthy wore the coat, and she wore it into the MRI machine. She said the energy from the Benson Babes made her feel like she was not alone, like we were all there with her.

At some point the coat will stop working for everyone every time. In fact, it already has. Melissa’s scan results were not good, but that hasn’t changed the comfort she gets from wearing it. There’s something about that coat that stands for everything we learned in class: to be kind to people, because judging them “hardens our heart,” to live every moment of life to its fullest, and to keep a gratitude diary to remind us of how good our life is now.

As a handout in our class booklet says: Who says how long your life should last? The real question is, how will you live it?

When I told them about the Globe Magazine accepting my story about the coat, the response from my fellow Benson Babes was overwhelming. Halle Berry got the news in the waiting room at MGH. She e-mailed me: “I am smiling on the inside and on the outside. I don’t have the coat with me .  .  . or do I.  .  .  . But I have this story. It gives me strength, it reminds me to be positive. It reminds me that I am not alone. Loving life right now!!”

When she got her results, she was cancer free.

Cynthia Thomas is a writer and dancer in Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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