Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

THE MANY COMMUNITIES TO which we belong are like concentric circles, emanating from us in presumably lessening levels of intimacy. Those in the innermost circles — our families and friends — know us better than those in the outer ones, our neighbors and co-workers. Childhood cancer, though, has a way of slashing through the buffer of politeness that separates each, creating a direct line to the family from all levels. The unspeakable possibility of losing a child resonates along the line, creating fear, compassion and, in the case of the Piccininis, an amazing outpouring of support.

As word of Becca’s illness spreads, a mobilization begins. While Sue and Bob are well-known in their church, they’ve kept a fairly low profile in the neighborhood. When they moved onto Gloucester Drive four years ago, it took them a while to get to know their neighbors. Sue thinks it’s because Becca and Bobby are older than the other kids. If there were play dates to arrange, natural connections would have formed more quickly. Not that Sue and Bob want more friendships; they grew up in the area — Sue went to Central Bucks East High School, where Becca, God willing, will enroll next fall — and have good friends nearby. They’re also active in the kids’ schools. Still, it has only been recently that they’ve felt a real sense of belonging here, especially since Becca began baby-sitting the neighbor’s children.

So Sue and Bob are stunned when two neighbors organize a system whereby, three times a week, someone from the neighborhood or their church delivers a meal to the Piccinini house. Sometimes it’s meatloaf, or a casserole. Once, it’s an entire turkey feast, with stuffing, cranberry sauce and apple pie. Sue and Bob have never even met some of the people dropping off food. Sue is grateful beyond words. When Bob and Bobby visit CHOP, they bring the dinners and heat them up in the microwave. “We get to eat as a family again,” says Sue, awed that Becca’s cancer has created a connection among people that wasn’t there before. “We feel so taken care of.”

People known to Sue and Bob only in passing offer words of support when they see the family at Genuardi’s or the post office. One mother shares how her own daughter had cancer several years before and is now doing beautifully. Her girl, like Becca, is a competitive swimmer, and the mom tells Sue that even though she lost a year of training, she’s come back better than ever.

Sue holds onto the story as though it’s a life rope.

SIX DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, BECCA is rushed to CHOP’s emergency room at 6:30 in the morning with a 104-degree fever — her first life-threatening crisis. Chemotherapy can induce a state of neutropenia, in which the body’s bacteria-fighting white blood cells fall to dangerously low levels. In such a scenario, ordinary bacteria that live, say, in the mouth or bowels can grow unchecked and cause infection. It’s a development the family was told to expect, but they somehow hoped Becca would skirt it. As their listless daughter is admitted for IV antibiotics and platelet transfusion, Bob and Sue are shaken and scared.