Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

As she warily strolls the corridors of the oncology unit, Becca is freaked out by its sights. She can’t believe how creepy the patients look, like aliens. She softens when she sees the little kids. But she glances away whenever someone her own age catches her eye. My God, she thinks, is that what I’m going to look like? Bald, gray-skinned, dark circles under my eyes?

Sue senses Becca’s fear and slips an arm around her daughter’s shoulder. “The nurses seem really nice,” she says. Indeed, the staff at CHOP — from the lab people who took Becca’s blood to the technicians working the MRI and CT units — have been exceptionally kind, even if the waiting between tests has been long.

Still, Becca and her parents feel deluged as they meet with Himelstein in his office. He’s 6’2”, with pink skin, small glasses and a childlike smile. Sue and Bob like him immediately, and Becca pronounces him “really cool.”

He confirms the good news that Becca’s cancer doesn’t appear to have spread. Then he outlines her treatment plan.

Over 10 months, starting next week, Becca will undergo five sessions of chemotherapy, spaced three weeks apart, to shrink and hopefully kill the tumor — it’s a living thing, he explains — which will then be surgically removed. Seven more rounds of chemo will follow, to blast away remaining cancerous cells. The success of the surgery will indicate whether radiation therapy is also warranted. This plan sounds slightly different to Sue and Bob from the one pioneered at Johns Hopkins, but Himelstein assures them that the protocol is sound.

“We’re in your hands,” Bob tells him. “Just keep Becky alive.”

“I’m going to do my best,” he tells them, but he’s looking directly at Becca. She likes that he talks to her, not over her head as if she’s a little kid who doesn’t understand things. She likes that he wants to know her questions, her feelings about all of this. She likes that he’s funny without being geeky, the way some adults are with people her age. She likes that cancer is normal to him, not out of the ordinary. It makes her feel less like a freak.

Himelstein explains the potential side effects of Becca’s treatment. One of the chemotherapy drugs may damage her heart, which may or may not recover eventually. She’ll also be at increased risk for developing adult-onset cancers, thanks to the chemo and radiation. Sue and Bob receive this news the way they did that of her tumor: with terrified consent and impatience to get on with whatever it takes to save Becca’s life.

But one side effect of Becca’s treatment is going to be unspeakably cruel. As a result of chemotherapy, Becca will become sterile. She might one day be able to carry a child to term using donated eggs, but her own will die along with the tumor.