Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

DR. LOUISE SCHNAUFER, THE surgeon who will remove Becca’s tumor tomorrow morning, hangs the patient’s x-rays and scans on a light box in an examining room at CHOP. Sue and Bob nervously enter with Becca and are immediately taken with Schnaufer. Sixty-plus years old, four-foot-ten, her gray hair cut into a sensible pixie, Schnaufer is a beloved figure in these halls. It’s easy to see why. “Come in, come in!” she says warmly, welcoming them as though they are houseguests for tea. “I’m just looking at Becca’s tumor. I think it’s shrunk well. Here, let me show you.”

She points to an old MRI scan and compares it with a new one. Both show a gray semicircular mass, shaped like a halfball, protruding into the chest cavity from where it’s attached to Becca’s rib. It’s hard to believe the culprit responsible for six months of medical anguish is so small and innocent-looking. “I think this is ready to come out,” Dr. Schnaufer says, smiling. “Now, what questions can I answer for you?”

“How long will the surgery last?” Becca asks. Then, the question that concerns her more: “How big will my scar be?” She sits on the edge of a gurney. She’s gained a little weight and looks tense but bright-eyed.

The surgery will take about four hours from prep to finish and leave a curving 10-inch scar running along Becca’s side. Schnaufer will remove one rib, or a piece of it, for sure. The remaining pieces of bone will be covered with surgical mesh to promote the growth of scar tissue, which will strengthen the site; the rib won’t grow back. Becca will be hospitalized for four to five days. On the third day, she’ll start a new round of chemo.

Bob is concerned about the pain a 10-inch incision will create. Schnaufer tells him, “She’ll have pain, but don’t worry — we’ll manage it.”

“Will I be able to see the tumor afterward?” say Becca in sudden excitement. The surgery will be videotaped, and Becca is eager to view the show. Schnaufer says she’ll do what she can.

In the lab for pre-op blood work, they run into Himelstein. “Hey, you,” he says to Becca, and they high-five, sharing big grins. He says he’ll stop into the O.R. tomorrow to watch the surgery. He doesn’t often have the chance to see a real live tumor — “or a real dead tumor, I hope,” he tells the family. “I want to see what’s been causing all the activity these past few months.”

Sue sinks into a chair as though she needs the support. All yesterday, she and Bob had a bad feeling about their meeting today with Schnaufer. Nothing specific, just a sense of foreboding they couldn’t pinpoint. By mid-afternoon, they were both crying. The weather was gloomy and stormy, and they wondered if it was a sign. “Boy, that sure didn’t help,” says Bob, his eyes still red.

Now, after meeting Schnaufer, they feel light-headed. Could things really be okay in the end? For months they’ve tried so hard to take a positive view, but inside, all they’ve thought about are those 60-percent odds.