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Childhood cancer treatments take fatal toll

Bill Mckee Moscow-Pullman Daily News

MOSCOW, Idaho – Her parents described Becky Reisenauer Weidert initially as a happy, healthy child.

She was developing normally, loved ice cream, was energetic and had a large, extended family she enjoyed playing with.

About the time she turned 3 years old, though, her parents noticed something was a little off.

“She just wasn’t acting right,” said her mother, Donna.

Becky stopped eating her ice cream, her energy was gone and though she had already learned the bathroom process, she started wetting the bed again.

When they took her to the doctor, they were told it was “just a virus.” Convinced they were being overprotective parents with their first, and ultimately only child, Donna and Becky’s father, Delbert, brought her home, expecting her to soon recover.

After some weeks she didn’t get any better, though, so they brought her back.

That’s when they found the lump on her neck.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a fairly uncommon type of cancer that affects cells that normally develop into skeletal muscles and is most commonly found in young children.

“Hellish” was how her parents described the following months of chemotherapy treatments.

In the end the treatment eradicated the cancer and extended Becky’s lifespan by more than 20 years.

But it came at a cost that also resulted in ending her life prematurely.

Among other effects, the chemo left her with nerve damage, in almost constant pain, and damaged tendons in her legs, causing them to tighten up, making it painful and difficult to walk. The radiation destroyed most of her teeth and, once the chemo was complete and during an exploratory surgery to make sure the cancer was gone, a nerve in her neck was accidentally severed, which left her unable to close her right eye.

It helped that she was young, though. The nerve in her neck regenerated enough that she was eventually able to close her eye again, surgery repaired some of the damage to her tendons and feet enough so she was at least able to walk, and she eventually got dental implants to replace her teeth when she was in high school.

Moreover, being so young meant she didn’t remember many of the more painful experiences, for which her parents were grateful.

‘Normal’

Growing up in Moscow, Becky, like most children, just wanted to be “normal,” and found making friends in school a challenge, her mother said.

“She spent so much time in the hospital she was good with adults, but she had trouble making friends her own age,” Donna said.

Her physical condition didn’t help. Playing sports was something Becky always felt like she was missing out on, but found little chance of actually being able to compete with other children due to her frail and damaged body.

She was on the dance team for a time and played some basketball and softball, even scored a home run once due to an overthrown ball, but her parents admitted it was always a little tough for them to watch her play.

Becky did make friends, though, and those friends she made stayed close for life.

Instead of sports she learned to enjoy other hobbies – photography, knitting and scrapbooking – and was an active, award-winning member of the 4H club.

In the 10th grade, Becky learned the chemotherapy had left her damaged in one other way: heart disease.

Heart disease as a result of chemotherapy is not uncommon. It often leaves the heart muscle weakened or arrhythmic or both. The right side of Becky’s heart had to work harder each day to make up for the weakened left.

The double-edged sword

Unfortunately, since Becky was a child, the field of research and understanding of the damage that chemotherapy does to children fighting cancer hasn’t changed much, said Dr. Judy Felgenhauer with Providence Pediatric Oncology.

“The reality is that the first survivors of childhood cancers are just now reaching their 50s and 60s, so the long-term effects are not something we’ve dealt with for very long,” she said.

While the effectiveness of the care children are receiving in terms of beating cancer is at an all-time high of about 80 percent, the treatment is still something of a double-edged sword, she said, because a significant number still wind up with long-term effects, like heart damage.

There are drugs currently being tested that may reduce the risk of heart failure associated with certain types of cancer treatments, but they come with a slew of side effects many feel might not make it worth the risk, Felgenhauer said.

An indelible smile

Despite the trials, tribulations and tests of faith, there were some wonderful times as well.

Even in the worst of the chemotherapy, Delbert said, he fondly remembers times when Becky was “bald as a cue ball,” having fun talking or playing games with other children at Deaconess Hospital, where she went for her treatments as a child.

“She always had a smile on her face,” he said.

It was in Deaconess Hospital where she met the “Playroom Lady,” who worked with the children, keeping them entertained and keeping them positive.

After graduating from Moscow High School, it was the impression the Playroom Lady left on Becky that led to her decision to study psychology and child development and family relationships at the University of Idaho, with the hopes that she might one day play a similar role in another child’s life. She graduated with a double major in 2009.

It was also while she was at the University of Idaho that she met Pete.

Becky and Pete

Becky and Pete Weidert first met at a Bible study group in June 2004.

Cupid didn’t strike immediately – Pete admits he had a crush on another girl at the time – but they eventually ran into each other online. It was Becky who first asked Pete out, and it was after their first date, swing dancing at CJ’s in Moscow, when he first saw how fun and spontaneous she could be, that he realized he might have stumbled into something special.

He had just accepted a job in Walla Walla, but they made it work, keeping in touch throughout the weeks by chatting over the phone and online, and visiting each other on alternating weekends.

“Over the first few months she started cluing me in about the health issues she had and the cancer she had as a child. But honestly, for me, it was kind of a non-factor for me because of how much I liked her,” he said.

They had been dating for nearly two years when he asked her to be his wife, and in March 2007 they were married.

He moved back to the area, and they lived together in Moscow. They went on trips together to Hawaii, Mexico, Florida, several times to Canada and to Las Vegas for her 21st birthday.

She liked horror and science fiction movies, the Latah County fair, and was willing to put up with his obsession with baseball.

Pete said his favorite memories with her were just the two of them at home, watching television or playing games or with their cats. He often was working multiple jobs, and said he enjoyed knowing he was coming home to her at the end of the day.

Because Becky didn’t have much confidence in her driving, each year Pete took her to Spokane for her checkup with her cardiologist.

For several years, he remembers them seeming fairly routine. There would be an echocardiogram to see how her heart was doing, and the doctor would say she was doing about the same, perhaps make an adjustment to her medication.

But when they went in for their checkup in the fall of 2012, the routine changed.

She was told her heart was failing, that she needed a transplant for both her heart and one lung.

Over the next 18 months that hope for a transplant rose, then was later dashed. Becky died at home with family April 16, 2014, from complications due to heart failure.

‘Mini bucket list’

Before the end, however, was also a trip to the Oregon Coast, where, her mother said, Becky wanted to dip her toes in the ocean. There was a first helicopter ride and a first sip of sake, which Becky had always wanted to try.

They were things on a sort of “mini bucket list” Donna said, and through most of it, Becky wore the smile she was well-known for.

There weren’t too many things on her list because Becky had lived her whole life like it was a bucket list, Donna said.

When she was 3 years old they weren’t sure whether she was to live, and they are grateful to have had her for as much longer as they did.

“But it was long enough, so many years between, we kind of forgot about that part,” Delbert added.

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