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.
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.
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. Continued...