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One woman’s unusual method for defying incurable cancer

Rebecca Timlin-Scalera wearing the Chanel coat that helps her cope with her cancer treatments. (Tom Scalera)

Not long ago, I returned from a weekend in Paris with seven amazingly supportive female friends wearing a vintage black wool hooded Chanel coat with white satin lining. Today, one of those wonderful friends, Casey, drives me, wrapped in that gorgeous coat, to a cancer center for the clinical trial that is keeping my Stage-4-incurable-cancer-ridden self alive.

My white blood cell counts, depressed because of the meds I have been taking for more than two years, have risen just enough to allow me to resume the poisonous oral chemo regimen I follow in Phase 2 of this clinical trial. I take these three weeks out of every month, and I will do so for the rest of my life as long as the meds keep working and my white blood cells keep cooperating. If not, well, it could be game over — so today is good news. Congratulations to me.

Mostly, though, I just feel angry at the cancer. It is in defiance of it, perhaps, that I wear my new/used Chanel coat to the cancer center. It is definitely out of place in the sad, sick, anxious waiting room.

It is absolutely too fancy for the occasion, and it is completely and utterly inconsistent with the tank top, gym leggings and sneakers I have on underneath. It is also totally impractical, as it keeps getting crumpled and risks catching splatters of blood on the lining when I remove half of it for vitals and to receive needles in my left arm.

I know this. I wear it anyway.

Coco Chanel was born one day and 89 years before me. A fellow Leo, she was born on Aug. 19, 1883, I on Aug. 20. She died in 1971, a year before I was born. After Coco’s mother died, she was raised in an orphanage by nuns who taught her how to sew. Before using those skills to create the fashion empire known simply as “Chanel,” she performed as a singer in clubs where she acquired the nickname “Coco” — short for “cocotte” or “kept woman.”

Her unique combination of fiery grit, pride, scrappy survivor instinct, dignity and elegance is something I strive to achieve myself, especially since being ravaged, body and soul, by this heinous disease. However, beyond the classic simplicity of her killer style, I live by her legendary statements that have saved me from a lifetime of over-accessorizing, such as “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I also admire how her groundbreaking designs were made with the specific intent of getting women out of corsets and into comfort without sacrificing quality or aesthetics: “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” she said.

Last October, I returned home from a day at my cancer hospital to find a package lying on the kitchen table. I had just learned that my breast cancer had progressed to Stage 4 and, because even my cancer is an overachiever, it had mutated to the dreaded, triple-negative type of metastatic breast cancer for which there is not only no cure but also no treatments available on the market and for which the average prognosis is just 18 months from reoccurrence.

I opened the package and pulled out a sweater I had somewhat impulsively purchased from a catalogue a few weeks earlier. It was a fitted knit black V-neck sweater with subtle metallic gold and silver bands on the sleeves. In the catalogue it looked both sexy and kind of cool, and my head filled immediately with images of me looking svelte at a holiday cocktail party over the black velvet pants I pull out once a year for such an occasion.

Now, though, instead of feeling excited, I felt sickened. I detected the faint smell of chemicals on the garment, from whatever factory in whatever country on whatever machine it had been made. I got a mental image of workers lined up, in poor conditions, making this sweater and a zillion others just like it. I thought of my closet and dresser drawers — just upstairs — already filled with plenty of perfectly acceptable outfits to wear for any occasion outside of my exciting hospital ventures. I got an involuntary and morbid image of my husband and children going through all my stuff one day if this disease does take me out. All that stuff, all that energy and time purchasing gone, and for what? Suddenly, adding one more unnecessary item to the pile I had accumulated over the past 45 years just seemed completely and utterly . . . wrong.

I decided right then that my New Year’s resolution would be not to buy a new item of clothing in 2018. Used? Well, maybe. Even though I was completely sure this was the right thing for me, it still felt oddly terrifying to commit to. I am a total sucker for a well-heeled mannequin. I’ll buy the entire outfit if it looks great on her, without even trying it on. How would I ever do this?

Within the month, I got my answer. On a trip to Bogota, Colombia, Casey and I strolled past a storefront that made us both stop in our tracks, wordlessly do an about-face and head inside. Every single item in this shop would have been welcome and treasured in either one of our closets. The clothes were literally the definition of cozy and sexy, and we dubbed the line “Cozexy.” And it was still 2017, so I could buy them without violating my resolution.

Yet I quickly became overwhelmed by the accumulation of stuff in the dressing room. Coco’s mantra “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury” ran through my mind as I tried to channel my Chanel. It was then that I saw it: a soft, machine-washable pale-gray long-sleeve pantsuit romper: basically an adult onesie. I put it on. Effortless, it had an adjustable rope belt to cinch the waist on days I might feel skinny and to loosen on the days I might feel fat. It had a V-neck low enough to be feminine, dare I say even a little sexy, on the days I might feel like forgetting that the beautiful round breasts that cancer took from me had been replaced by significantly smaller and much less shapely lumps of flesh from my lower back. I put it on and felt as though I were wearing a blanket, an embrace, manna from heaven. I found my new uniform and, as Coco advised, it was comfortable, simple, beautiful, flattering and luxurious.

I can dress it up or down, I can gain or lose 10 pounds and still fit comfortably in it. I can throw it on post-surgery (I had just had my eighth cancer-related operation), after a rough day at the hospital (of which there are many), to play with my kids or when I’m home writing. Beyond all that, I couldn’t care less if anyone thinks it looks weird, or hip, or great, or frumpy. I am rocking this romper for me, no matter what.

It also just so happens to look fabulous with that beautiful — and used — black coat with white satin lining I picked up in Paris. I think Coco would agree.

Timlin-Scalera, a neuropsychologist and the founder of the Cancer Couch foundation, which funds research on metastatic breast cancer, is a writer, comedian and lifelong athlete. She was living a full, healthy life in September 2015 when she received a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer and was told she had perhaps three years to live.

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A view from the “other” waiting room, where cancer patients wait for treatment that they hope will save them.