Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

“How long will the treatment take?” she asks. She’s thinking of Paris. A long time, she’s told. She should be prepared to miss a lot of school.

“We’ll take it a step at a time, Becky,” says Bob, rubbing her back. “We’ll get through it.”

Becca nods her head, trying to take it all in, staring at the floor.


TWO DAYS LATER, BOB, SUE AND BECCA area at Johns Hopkins, where Becca is being seen by a pediatric oncologist and undergoing a five-day series of consultations and tests; in between, the family is staying with Sue’s brother in Baltimore.

Although each case of cancer is different, the initial diagnostic tests for solid tumors like Becca’s are fairly standard: an MRI to get a better picture, CT scans to check for metastases to other areas of the body, a series of blood studies. The doctor spends some time explaining childhood cancers. Most, he says, occur in the blood and brain, few have a genetic cause, and, unlike many adult-onset cancers, most can’t be linked to specific behaviors. Becca’s tumor is quite rare. He describes a treatment plan that included chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

He gives Becca survival odds of 60 percent.

“Which means we have a 40 percent chance of losing her” is Sue’s devastated response. Bob says it’s better than 50-50, but Sue says 40 is cutting it way too close.

Sue is numb and exhausted. She and Bob have slept fitfully in the days since Becca’s diagnosis, taking turns crying in each other’s arms, waking in the morning stunned to find that their nightmare remains real. “This is something that happens to other people,” Sue keeps thinking.

Becca has been sharing the news of her illness with her friends.

“Guess what?” she says in calls to the Two Amys and Meghan. “You know that bump I have? It’s cancer.” When they start to cry and ask if she’s going to die, she finds herself comforting them, instead of the other way around. It flips her out to hear them so upset, and she decides not to tell anyone else for a while, especially when she doesn’t even feel sick.

The doctor at Johns Hopkins recommends that Becca be treated closer to home, at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), as she may develop serious infections during her therapy and need emergency treatment. CHOP, some 30 miles from Doylestown, won’t be around the corner. But Johns Hopkins will be too far way if Becca is hot with fever.

They leave Johns Hopkins on Halloween day, a Friday. For Bob and Sue, the ride home is both more sober than the one to Baltimore and more purposeful. They now have a suggested treatment protocol, a referral to the oncology department at CHOP, and a fierce new resolve that Becca is going to make it. Becca seems preoccupied, but not morbidly so. The diagnosis is hitting her in this way: Her life is about school, her friends, her trip to Paris. Take those away, and she might as well be dead anyway.