Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

AT HOME, THE PICCININIS begin moving to the strange new rhythm cancer has brought to their lives. Every four weeks, Sue and Becca pack their bags and head to CHOP for five days. Sue brings books to help pass the time; she’s too distracted to read anything but romance novels, whose hopeful prose is easy to dip into and out of. Becca brings homework and a box of talismans: stuffed animals, lollipops, notepaper, nail polish, magazines.

It’s hard to imagine how some teenage girls would fare, trapped in a hospital room with their mothers for one week out of every four. But Sue and Becca’s relationship has yet to move into the battlefield phase of teenage life. So far, they still enjoy each other’s company.

Try to remember the turbulence of young adolescence, when all you wanted was to pull away from your parents, to strike out on your own, or as much as you could living in a suburb, dependent on your mom and dad for money and transportation but ready for all the freedom you could grab. That’s where Becca is these days. She’s been a good, honest kid who used to confess to her parents the smallest transgression (“She once told us she had chocolate milk for lunch at school instead of regular,” Sue says, smiling. “She said she didn’t want us to find out from someone else.”) Though she thinks her parents are worrywarts for not letting her get into a car with older friends who’ve just gotten their licenses, she doesn’t do it, because they’ve asked her not to. She has earned her parents’ trust. Now, just as they’re beginning to reward her by letting her stay out later and go places without them, she’s more tethered to them than ever. It’s a tough position for a kid to be in.

“Becca’s everything I ever wanted in a daughter,” says Sue, sipping a Coke at the table in their breakfast nook. The windows look over a deck and a long stretch of lawn that ends in a stand of tall tress, naked but for a few remaining leaves this December afternoon. Little Bobby is watching cartoons in the adjacent family room, whose high windows and cathedral ceiling let in the wan winter sunlight. “She’s smart, funny, sensitive and loyal. Some days, she feels like more of a young friend to me than a daughter. She’ll say something incredibly wise, and I’ll say to Bob, ‘Is this person really our kid?’”

When pressed, Becca will admit she thinks her mom is way cooler than the mothers of some of her friends. She also thinks Sue is one of the prettiest moms. She says she tells her mother most everything; then again, she’s only 14 — her November 21st birthday has just passed — so she doesn’t have many secrets yet.