Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

“There’s no way I’m going to be held back,” she tells Bob, Sue and the counselor. “Besides, all my friends are in my grade.”

Bob reassures Becca they’ll do what it takes to get her through the year. She’s such a good student, they feel confident that missing those five days once a month, while she receives chemo, won’t affect her grades much. And she’s in such good health otherwise, they’re hopeful she’ll tolerate the chemotherapy well.

As for most kids her age, school is pretty much the place where life comes together for Becca, where she and her friends make plans for the coming week and for the rest of their lives. There’s a gang of them, boys and girls, some of them starting to eye each other flirtatiously. There’s one boy, Joe (that’s not his real name), whom Becca particularly likes; she knows he likes her, too. He’s cute and funny, and tall, like her. They tease each other at school and at the food court at the mall, and he calls her on the phone. Other boys call, too, so it’s not like she’s totally exclusive with Joey. But he gives her and her friends a lot to talk about.

The counselor say Becca’s teachers will gladly tutor her at home, and additional tutors at CHOP can help with assignments, too.

“Okay, then,” says Sue. “I guess we’ll get the chemo started and take it from there.”

THE NAUSEA DEFIES ALL DESCRIPTION. It doubles Becca in half, makes her vomit repeatedly into the basin Sue holds for her. It is mid-November, and Becca is in the throes of her first five-day chemo treatment at CHOP. Sue is staying with her, sleeping on the recliner alongside Becca’s bed. As she wipes her daughter’s face with a damp towel, she feels helpless. Her kids have had stomach bugs and viruses before, but nothing has prepared her for this. Becca writhes with discomfort as the chemotherapy medications drip through an IV tube and into her unsuspecting body. It’s bizarre, Sue thinks — one day, her healthy-looking daughter is joking that her hospitalization will be a sort of adventure. The next day, she is trembling with pain.

Becca is given drugs to quell the nausea, and they make her high as a hippie; she goes into a trance watching a get-well helium balloon lazily bob from one side of the room to the other, pushed to and fro by air from the ceiling vents. Becca, who says she has never experimented with drugs in her life, smiles at the balloon like it’s a friend.

When she’s not high, she’s asleep, heavily sedated by drugs to counter migraines the anti-nausea medication has brought on. Sue is glad Becca is dozing but concerned that she hasn’t eaten much today. It’s too early in the game for her to lose weight; she needs to keep meat on her bones. “This morning, all she wanted was a cracker and a few olives,” says Sue, who plans to stay with Becca through each chemo treatment. Bob and Bobby visit in the evening, bringing dinner for Sue. They all feel off-kilter.

Becca is discharged after five days, but she doesn’t return to school until almost a week later. That’s how long it takes her to feel straight again.