Sisterhood Of The Traveling (Cancer) Coat

Originally published on October 1, 2013 4:35 pm

This is the story of six women and one thrift shop coat. Call it the sisterhood of the traveling coat, after the fictional teens who shared a pair of pants. But in this real-life story, these women pass the coat around, as they are treated for cancer.

The women met in January at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, where they were attending a group there to help them cope.

Anything that you can possibly believe that helps you though this horrific time, you try.
–Vicci Recckio

Then the women became friends, dubbing themselves the “Benson Babes.” Here & Now saw their story in The Boston Globe Magazine.

It was written by Cynthia Thomas, who credits the coat with helping her fight her brain fog and go back to writing.

Here & Now had the opportunity to speak with Anne-Marie Chang, Elaine Ducharme and Vicci Recckio, members of the “Benson Babes,” about their experiences with the coat.

“Well at first I thought, you know it’ll be something that I can put on and I’ll smile just thinking about the women because that’s what it reminds me of immediately. It’s like I’m right back there in the meeting,” Chang told Here & Now.

But then the coat started taking on a deeper symbol for the friends, as they noticed it seemed to act as a good luck charm.

“Anything that you can possibly believe that helps you though this horrific time, you try. And it’s a coat, you know, it wasn’t something way out there, it was a special, warm coat. How could that hurt anyone? You have to bring the ‘Benson Babes’ with you, and the only way you can do that is through the coat,” said Recckio.

Since we recorded our conversation with Chang, Ducharme and Recckio, they lost a member of the sisterhood: Pamela Bradford.


  • Anne-Marie Chang, Elaine Ducharme and Vicci Recckio, friends united through their cancer treatment by a coat.
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OK. Well, you guys are fantastic.

ELAINE DUCHARME: We could talk all day.

ANNE-MARIE CHANG: Yeah, we could.


YOUNG: It may not sound like it, but this is a group of women confronting cancer. And this is a story about how they did it, in part, through an old coat. They call themselves the Benson Babes. They met in a support group at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Elaine Ducharme, Anne-Marie Chang, Vicci Recckio were in our studios. Absent that day: Maxine Hogard, Cynthia Thomas and Pamela Bradford, or as she's known to the group, Melissa McCarthy, after the actress. In fact, they all go by the nicknames of the famous women they resemble.

DUCHARME: Sometimes the effect of chemo is you don't remember things well, so we can never remember each others' names. So it was easier to do who you look like.

YOUNG: That's Elaine Ducharme, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Susan Sarandon. Anne-Marie Chang looks like Alicia Keys. Vicci Recckio, Isabella Rossellini. They belong to a group that could also be called the Sisterhood of the Traveling Coat, after those teenagers who shared a pair of pants, only these women all shared a coat. It wasn't with them this day and we'll hear why. But first, I asked Elaine why did she and Cynthia buy it at Goodwill.

DUCHARME: Well, we liked it, first of all. nd we just both put it on and it looked good on both of us. And so we got to the counter, and Cynthia said, well, I have a lot of coats. Why don't you buy it? And I said, well, it's $10. Let's share it. And then I said let's bring it to the group and whoever needs a hug could take the coat. Anne-Marie was the first one to take it.


DUCHARME: And she took it home that week.

CHANG: That's right.

YOUNG: And Anne-Marie, what was that like to take the coat home?

CHANG: Well, at first I thought, you know, it'll be something that I can put on, and I'll smile just thinking about the women, because that's what it reminds me of immediately. It's like I'm right back there in the meeting with them.

YOUNG: In the support group, yup. But then Cynthia, in particular, started to see that positive results for her, in her cancer treatment, happen when she wore the coat.

CHANG: Right.

DUCHARME: Then people started taking it to appointments. And it was more about feeling the power of the group when you had the coat.

YOUNG: Well, Vicci, was it also a little bit - Vicci - Isabella Rossellini, was it also a little bit about talisman, good luck charm?

VICCI RECCKIO: A little bit. Anything that you can possibly believe that helps you through this horrific time, you try. And it's a coat. You know, it wasn't something way out there. It was a special warm coat. How can that hurt anyone?

YOUNG: Right.

RECCKIO: So you have to bring the Benson Babes with you, and the way you do that is through the coat.

DUCHARME: And Pam wore it in the MRI machine.


DUCHARME: They let her wear it. Pam, Melissa McCarthy, when she was in the MRI machine, she wore the coat.

YOUNG: All the way to the MRI machine

CHANG: Inside.

DUCHARME: In it. In it. In it.

RECCKIO: In it. In it.

YOUNG: In it, yeah. Mm-hmm.

RECCKIO: The coat just - you just start thinking about other things that you can do. In my case, I got out on the kayak and went kayaking. And you think about your dreams and your goals, and I started a small business and you just - you see it and it gives you hope and energy. You feel energized.

YOUNG: Well, Cynthia, she says she gave it to you - I'll probably call you Alicia...


YOUNG: ...Anne-Marie, and that it helped you what?

CHANG: The week that I wore it, we had just completed an exercise in the class where we listed our goals. And I was thinking about those goals and really how this coat could help me, because it made me just feel so good. I really wanted to play more with, just in general, more specifically with my kids. I really hadn't spent that time fooling around and playing with them since I had been diagnosed with cancer. So I ran around with my kids and we had a ball. And I probably would never have done that.

YOUNG: Elaine?

DUCHARME: I think all of us with this class, what it thought us was new ways of coping with the new person you become when you finish cancer. And so when I was taking the class, I was pretty much finished treatment and was dealing with this person who I now see in the mirror every day, who is completely different from what I was before.

And I found the coat, I put it on and put the collar up, and I felt pretty. I felt like myself a little bit more, and that was from these people and the things we learned in class giving me just that extra push. And it is a coat that looks good on everyone and it has big pockets and it's cozy and it is like wearing a hug.

YOUNG: And there are big tears in your big Susan Sarandon eyes...

...when you say this. This is powerful.

DUCHARME: It's a gift. We said this before. It is a gift of friendship that came when you least expected, because everybody in this group has given me something in my life and I feel like I give to them. And I don't know how else to say this, but cancer has given a lot of gifts.

YOUNG: Well, and the coat seems to be a symbol of that. And, Vicci, I'm hearing that you were wearing it when you got news that your tumors were shrinking.

RECCKIO: Yeah, I had it with me during my CAT scan. And I have a newer cancer and have been through a lot - 23 treatments so far. And I had the coat on and the tumors are just drastically shrinking. I mean, it's dramatically shrinking so...

DUCHARME: She's in the top 10 of people with her kind of cancer.

RECCKIO: On the top 10 percent responding. Yeah. It's just unbelievable. Unbelievable.

YOUNG: Congratulations.

RECCKIO: Thank you. Thank you.

YOUNG: But some of that joy gets imparted to this brown thing.

RECCKIO: I know, this brown thing.


DUCHARME: It's not even pretty.

RECCKIO: Who would have thought? The brown thing.

YOUNG: It's really - I mean, the color is nice.

DUCHARME: That's it.


DUCHARME: And the pockets.

CHANG: And the velvet trimming.

YOUNG: But it's like "The Velveteen Rabbit."

DUCHARME: It is, yep.

CHANG: Yeah.

YOUNG: You know, it's loved so much that you sort of overlook.

DUCHARME: It really is, yep.

YOUNG: But as is pointed out, you don't always get the good cancer news. You mentioned Pamela Bradford, Melissa McCarthy, you know...

DUCHARME: She's dying. But she's dying, yep.

CHANG: But we all are. You know, we all are dying from the moment we're born.

DUCHARME: Right. But...

CHANG: And we don't know how long we'll have. But she's incredibly strong and supported. And she gets a lot of comfort from the coat.

DUCHARME: And her family.

RECCKIO: And the group of the Benson Babes.


CHANG: That's right.


YOUNG: Well, the coat is not here now...


YOUNG: ...because it's with her.

CHANG: Mm-hmm.


RECCKIO: We decided that's the best place for the coat right now.

YOUNG: Yeah.

The Benson Babes, women who met at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Mass General Hospital in Boston, confronting their cancer, in part, through a coat. One of them wrote their story for The Boston Globe.

And we have this footnote: Pam Bradford, who wore the quote in her MRI scans, who looked so much like Melissa McCarthy, did die this past weekend, but not before passing along the coat to another Benson Babe to wear to a test this morning, which one of the women told us today was in the spirit of Pam, and, we'd add, in the spirit of the sisterhood of the traveling coat. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.