Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

BECCA MARCHES WITH HER BANDMATES through winding, narrow streets of Paris, feeling like a heroine. The crowds that have turned out for the parade are huge. They press along the sidewalk and hang from balconies, cheering: “Yay, America! We love you, America!” Although the band is supposed to remain dignified and solemn between songs, Becca can’t keep from laughing and waving back. A year ago, when the band started planning the trip, she thought this day would never come. Just two weeks ago, she was sick in the hospital. But here she is, making her way up the hilly streets to Sacré-Coeur. Several marchers drop out and sit on the curb for a few minutes, winded from the climb. But Becca, cheeks flushed, her wig styled in a small ponytail, makes it to the top like it’s something she does every day.

Last night, she attended a mixer with kids from other American high schools, and she had a ball. Afterward, they were up for hours calling each other’s rooms in the hotel. Bob and Sue phoned to wish their daughter Happy New Year and were on hold for 45 minutes until someone from the hotel pounded on Becca’s door and told her to hang up, her parents were waiting. “Paris is so awesome!” Becca trilled when they finally connected. “I can’t wait to come back here again!”

Sue thought about going to Paris, too, just in case. But she could see that Becca took Himelstein to heart when he told her, “Look, Becca, you’re not a little kid. You’re going to be in charge of your health while you’re away, no one else. You’ll need to pay attention, take your medicines, and if you’re not feeling well, let someone know immediately.”

When Becca returns home, spent but happy — and skinny, because she was too excited to eat more than a croissant or two each day — it’s clear the time away has been good for her. She got to feel independent, at least for a while — a respite she’ll think of often in the next few months.

JUST WEEKS LATER, BECCA IS ADMITTED to CHOP for another infection. This time, she doesn’t rally well, and the stay stretched into nine days. Sue, home only three nights out of the past 17, is stunned. She and Bob never expected the infections to occur so frequently. It’s like being held up at gunpoint once a month. The stress in unchartable.

Bob and Bobby miss Sue and Becca terribly. Becca has lost a lot of weight. Everyone is concerned she won’t be in optimal shape for her surgery, tentatively scheduled for mid-February. Himelstein decides to insert a feeding tube through her nose and down into her stomach. Becca is too tired to argue. Since her return from Paris, her appearance has changed drastically. Her eyebrows and lashes have fallen out, her face is sunken, her skin is sallow and opaque-looking, and dark marks underline her eyes. It’s taken a few months, but she now looks like the cancer patients she was trying so hard to avoid.

With this infection, Becca’s spirit is breaking, and she lets loose with Sue, who holds her daughter for hours on end. She is learning, as she and Bob never have before, what it truly means to be a parent — to put yourself last when your kid needs you. Parents of healthy children do this in small ways every day. Parents of chronically sick children do it in spades.