Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

She was told the chemo would make her hair fall out, but she is devastated by how quickly it happens. Hoping the bald patches won’t be so noticeable if her hair is short, she cuts it to her chin. But clumps lie on her pillow each morning and clog the tub drain after a shampoo. Finally, broken-hearted, she shaves it all off and is fitted at CHOP for a wig — a collar-length bob with more henna tones than her own thick locks. The first time she wears it to school, she stays in the nurse’s office all day, tearfully refusing to endure the hallway stares she knows will come. The next day, she clings to the arm of her friend Emily, who escorts her to all her classes. Emily has donned a curly white wig for the occasion and clowns her way down the halls. Once Becca gets laughing, things don’t feel so bad. After that, she does okay.

Becca is glad the kids at school aren’t treating her like a weirdo. While she was in the hospital, Holicong’s nurse held an assembly for the entire ninth grade to alert them to Becca’s condition and help prepare them for the changes they’ll see in her in the coming year. Becca is relieved to hear that none of the kids made jokes. They were all respectful and solemn, and she is surprised to learn that a lot of them crammed the guidance counselor’s office afterward. Some were crying. They asked, Is Becca going to die? How can she die when she doesn’t even look sick? If she can look fine and be dying, is it possible we might be dying, too? Becca’s cancer is cutting through the invincibility that adolescents wear like a magic cape. Kids stop her in the hallway to ask how she’s feeling, and she doesn’t mind at first; she thinks it’s sweet. But she soon tires of the questions. School is the place where she wants to feel normal.

A new development, though, teaches her that, try as she might to deny it, not everyone sees her as the same person she was before the diagnosis. Just prior to her second round of chemo, she has an awful talk with Joey. He tells her he wants to be “just friend” until she is “finished having cancer,” because she’s going to be too sick to hang out with. She comes home from school, face covered in tears, and pours her heart out to Sue, whose own heart breaks for her daughter.

“He’s just immature, Becky,” Sue says gently, angry with Joey but also understanding that he, like Becca, is just a kid. What does he know about tact? Becca stays in her room for hours, talking out her misery on the phone. Her friends vociferously agree that Joey is hateful and immature, which helps move her heartbreak into the more manageable realm of clean anger. Still, when she looks at the picture she has of she and Joey, taken on a class trip to Philadelphia the previous year, she feels wistful.