Three days before Christmas 2018, Becky had a mammogram and discovered she had stage II breast cancer. An oncology team quickly mobilized to create a lifesaving treatment plan: bilateral mastectomy in January, followed by 14 rounds of chemotherapy and, finally, five weeks of daily radiation therapy.
Two things made the treatment more bearable: the amazing caregivers at LDS Hospital, and the hours the North Salt Lake woman spent imagining gingerbread creations as she lay still for her radiation treatments.
“There were these techs in Radiation Therapy. They’re wonderful, wonderful caregivers who made my treatment as joyful and happy as they could. They were always so happy to see me. They remembered details of what I talked about last time I was in,” she says. “I’m sure they did that with every patient. That was just who they are. But it made a difference for me as a patient.”
While they chatted about their weekends and families, a tech would prepare Becky for treatment. That included covering her with something she called her “prom dress,” a gold-colored metallic drape that intensified the radiation. Then she’d begin her treatment, lying still in a tube with her arms above her head. To distract herself, she thought of gingerbread houses.
Becky’s mother had a tradition of making gingerbread houses for her grandkids to decorate on the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year, and Becky, 65, now carries on the tradition with her 15 grandchildren.
“I don’t consider myself artsy. I can’t paint or even do stick figures,” she says. “But I kind of liked making gingerbread houses and I started doing them.” Eventually, she was creating elaborate displays for private customers and events like the Festival of Trees, the annual holiday event that raises money for Primary Children’s Hospital. She also makes small ones to give to friends and neighbors whenever they need a little boost.
As Becky’s treatment came close to ending, she spent her time in the tube dreaming of the gingerbread she wanted to make for her caregivers at LDS Hospital as a gesture of her appreciation. With Halloween just weeks away, a scene came to mind: the Radiate & Celebrate Prom in the movie “Nukem High.”
The scene was full of meaning for Becky.
- The tongue walkway and dark, cavernous mouth at “Nukem High” symbolized Becky’s journey into treatment.
- One caregiver, Natalie, is shown wearing the gold “prom dress.” (Her date has been turned into a zombie.)
- Another caregiver, Doreen, attends the dance with Cousin ‘It.” Becky says having Doreen as a caregiver was like going to treatment with a best friend.
- She refrained from using much pink -- the traditional color of breast cancer treatment. “I wanted to bring some fun and joy for any patient coming in for whatever treatment.”
“You’re pretty wimpy when you start to recover from cancer treatment. It probably took me 15 to 20 hours to make, including the dough,” she says. That’s why her daughters helped her build it, infusing their own happiness, creativity, and concern into every inch of the scene. “Spending that time with my girls, I was in heaven,” she says.
In addition to the Radiate & Celebrate Prom, Becky also made a gingerbread house for her oncologist, the “magnificent, beyond magnificent” Margaret Van Meter, MD. That scene showed the doctor with a cell phone in her hand — “she always returned my phone calls personally” — and Dr. Van Meter’s daughters sledding with her husband.
“Thinking about the gingerbread helped me calm myself. Making the gingerbread made me feel like I was so blessed. I felt like I was doing something for someone else, paying it forward. Bringing some joy to someone else,” Becky says.
Her hair has grown back and she’s getting stronger every day. Next month, she’s scheduled to have reconstructive surgery. “At that point, I’ll feel like I’m done. I’ll be able to move forward.”
It’s a good thing, because gingerbread season is coming right up.