Originally published July 9, 2006. First of four parts: When you look into the face of someone with cancer, you may have no idea what is going on beyond chemo and radiation. It's human nature to turn away. But it is real life, and it is going on in homes all over this country, where more than 1 million people are diagnosed every year. Cyndie French and her son Derek opened their lives for a year to share their story.
Cyndie French sinks into the soft blue cushions of her living room sofa and reaches for her son Derek, flashing her fuchsia fingernails and her bravest smile. Derek, the boy who once was the pride of the Bridgeway Island Elementary School dodgeball crowd and the master of his multiplication tables, scowls back at her.
He knows that he is sick, that his sickness is the reason that he can no longer go to school, the reason his little sister had to leave their home, the reason the power company shut off the gas the other day. And he is angry. "Leave me alone," he tells his mother, scooting away from her side.
Cyndie, a single mom of five with a size 4 figure and platinum blonde hair, sighs deeply and begins massaging Derek's shiny scalp as his eyelids start to close.
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Sometimes we have to suffer, she says, referring to the biblical story of Job. Cyndie knows about suffering. She was abused as a young child, adopted at 8, out of the house by 17. She has raised her children mostly on her own and has struggled at times to pay her bills. But as she sits here today, suffering has a new meaning.
Where, she wonders, will it lead her this time?
Cyndie runs a K Street nail and tanning shop, and she looks the part today in her tight jeans and cotton Hard Rock Cafe top, her manicure du jour featuring pink polish flecked with gold. She is a few months short of 40, but she still turns heads, and she loves it.
With one hand wrapped around a tall white chocolate mocha with mint and the other on Derek's shoulder, Cyndie smiles at passing strangers in the corridors of the UC Davis Medical Center and flirts with about half of them.
"Wow!" she says, fixing her blue eyes on a man in a white laboratory coat. "Is everyone around here this handsome?"
Breezing through a hallway painted with pastoral images of mountains and birds, she enters another world. It is a world of scalpels and syringes, of radiation and medicines that inflict misery and inspire hope.
This is where doctors are waging war on Derek's neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer that starts in the nerve cells and already has invaded his bones and internal organs.
Derek is 10 years old. He is a gangly boy who walks on his tiptoes, prefers his pants baggy and wears his Shaq high-tops unzipped. He is all about "Star Wars" and video games, and not at all about the chemotherapy and radiation and CT scans and operations that have defined his life since his diagnosis last Thanksgiving.
Cancer has changed Derek, his mother says. When he is feeling good, he is soft-spoken and quick to share sweet treats with his brothers, tender and playful with his little sister and his mom. But lately, on too many days, his pain and fear become too much for him, and he erupts into uncontrollable tantrums.
Cyndie saves her tears for late at night after Derek and her other children have gone to bed. "I can't imagine what he's going through," she says. "No one can. But I won't cry in front of him. I have to be strong for him."
She prays that things will go smoothly today. It is, after all, one of the most important days of their lives.
Doctors are going to punch a hole in Derek's hip, trying to capture bone marrow that will tell them whether he is eligible to undergo a blood stem cell transplant, his best hope for beating neuroblastoma. It will be a gruesome task, and Cyndie is sparing Derek the details.
"They're going to put you to sleep, and when you wake up it will all be over and you'll feel better later," she tells him.
"That's all?" he asks.
"That's it," she says.
To Derek, the hospital represents misery, and Cyndie had to beg and cajole to get him here. They are a few minutes late.
"How long will this take, Mom?" he asks. "How long will we have to wait around? I hate waiting around! God, I hate it!"
Derek's hands have curled into tight fists.
Here comes one of her beloved boy's meltdowns. Soon, unless Cyndie takes action, he will be stomping his feet and the "F" bombs will start flying.
As they enter a hallway leading to the waiting area, Cyndie spots salvation in the form of a wheelchair.
"Get in," she tells Derek, and he sits down.
Cyndie kicks off her suede flip-flops, grabs the handles of the chair and starts to push Derek down the mostly empty corridors.
Faster and faster.
Over and over.
A worker maneuvering a gurney clears her path and lifts his eyebrows in mock amazement. A pair of painters give her a thumbs up. Her blonde hair flies behind her, and perspiration starts to bead on her forehead.
"Go, Mom!" Derek says, squinting his eyes and lifting his arms in ecstasy.
"Go! Go! Yesssssss!"
Derek is unconscious. He is lying on his side under the glare of fluorescent lights, his wiry body draped in a blue cloth. Sitting in front of him is his mother.
Cyndie has talked her way into this treatment room, despite her own squeamishness. "I absolutely have to be with Derek," she tells the doctors. "Where he goes, I go."
This time, they give in.
Jonathan Ducore, a pediatric cancer doctor fondly known as Fozzie Bear, is holding a long, narrow biopsy needle, which he is about to push into Derek's hip. The doctor is trying to find out whether Derek's chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which were so harsh that they took his hair and his eyebrows and his lovely, long eyelashes and destroyed his normally ravenous appetite, also have killed all of the cancer cells in his bone marrow. If so, he may be eligible for the blood stem cell transplant, a difficult, risky treatment that could wipe out his cancer for good. If not, his odds of survival are 30percent or less.
Ducore looks into Cyndie's wide eyes.
"There is nothing subtle about this," he warns. "It's just kind of a crude procedure."
Cyndie begins to softly hum.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," she sings. It is a tune she and Derek have shared since he was a baby.
Through a hole in the skin covering Derek's hip, Ducore starts to drive the needle into the bone, and Cyndie sings a little more frantically. Her perpetually ringing cell phone is clipped to her jeans and buzzing softly.
"You make me haaaaaaaaaappy, when skies are gray. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take. My sunshine. Away."
After about 20 minutes, Ducore holds up two syringes filled with cranberry red marrow. "We've got the stuff," he says.
Cyndie's face floods with relief.
But soon comes the hardest part of the day.
When Derek awakens in the recovery room, his hips are radiating with pain, and people in blue scrub suits are all around him.
"Get out of my face!" he screams, his high-pitched voice bouncing off the walls. He spews the "F" word at nurses and swings his fists at them. He kicks and punches his mother as she tries to hold him down.
"You're OK," she says, cupping her hand over his mouth.
"No, I'm not!" he yells, his hazel eyes wild with rage. "I'm not OK! How could you let them do this to me? You lied to me! I hate you!"
Nurses and patients are shooting looks of sympathy and disapproval Cyndie's way. She and Derek have to get out of here.
She scoops him up and carries him toward the nearest door. He flails at her. He pounds on her back and bites her arm. "Put me down! Damn it, put me down!"
Outside, Derek throws himself on the ground and starts to cry.
Cyndie crouches beside him on the sidewalk. It's getting harder and harder for her to watch him suffer and to come up with the right words to comfort him.
"I know you're sick of this and you don't want to do it anymore," she finally says to her crumpled, sobbing boy. "But one day you're going to look back on this and be glad we went through it together."
It is a scorching July day in West Sacramento, and a big black limousine has just pulled up to the curb outside Cyndie's tidy cookie-cutter house on Jamaica Street. Derek peeks out the front window, and his eyes nearly pop from his head.
"Sweeeeeeeet!" he says. "Look, Mom!"
Cyndie is running around the house, modeling outfits and earrings, snapping suitcases closed, applying pink lipstick, searching for her sunglasses on a dining room table still draped with a runner decorated with Christmas trees and smiling snowmen.
Where is her cell phone? she wonders out loud. Does she have the right purse? How about that great $6 top she found at Wal-Mart? She runs to the door, stopping to pat the family dog, Sasha, along the way, and takes her first peek at their ride for the day.
"Oh my God!" she screeches, her hand flying to her face.
They are going to have a fantasy weekend in Lake Tahoe. NBA star and former Sacramento King Chris Webber is taking care of everything.
Cyndie has worked marketing jobs in the past, and now she is marketing her son. She has called Webber's people, Oprah and Lance Armstrong and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Make A Wish Foundation and World Wrestling Entertainment. All of them now know Derek's story, and some of them are offering help.
"I want him to do everything he's always wanted to do," Cyndie says of her youngest son.
Right now, Derek is giddy about staying in a hotel for the very first time. How many floors will it have? Will there be elevators? Will he get to sleep in his own big bed? Derek's older brother Micah is coming along, and so is his best friend, RJ Dolan. They will all hang out together at a golf tournament on a beautiful course in the Sierra, and Webber has told Cyndie that she and the boys can charge whatever they want, all weekend, on his account.
It is a gift that Cyndie, divorced three times and caring for her family without help from her sons' fathers, could never afford to give Derek.
After months of focusing almost strictly on Derek's illness, she is barely able to make payments on her nail shop and is behind in her utility bills. Her landlord is patiently waiting for the $1,650 monthly rent check for her home.
Where will she get the money? she wonders out loud. She has only been into the shop two days this week. Medi-Cal will pay for most of Derek's care, but it's possible she could be saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in bills.
"I can't think about any of that right now," she says.
Today, everything is about Derek.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to make him happy, to see him smile," Cyndie says.
Whatever it takes.
She drops some of the suitcases into her foyer, where a cabinet is filling up with mementos from the Summer of Derek. There is a pair of Webber's size 16 basketball shoes. An autographed football from the annual Guns and Hoses charity game. A photograph of Derek with Sacramento Kings point guard Mike Bibby.
Cyndie has gathered all of these things for Derek, in between doctor's appointments and surgeries, on days when she could have -- maybe should have -- been at her shop. But no regrets. "For me right now, it's no contest," she says. "I'm gonna be with my kid."
On the wall near the cabinet, she has created a photo collage of Derek. Pictures of him as a dimpled baby. Blowing out birthday candles. Lying in a hospital bed, a weary smile on his face. Posing with Cyndie's boyfriend, Jeff Herzog. In the arms of Patrick Degnan, a longtime family friend whom Cyndie's kids call Grandpa. Sitting for family portraits with his mother, his little sister Brieanna and his three older brothers, Anthony, Vincent and Micah.
On the opposite wall, cards made by Derek's classmates on green and orange and yellow drawing paper urge him to Get Well and Feel Better.
Cyndie takes a final dash through the living room, where the Bible and her copy of Rick Warren's inspirational best-seller "The Purpose Driven Life" sit on the coffee table. Next to the kitchen bulletin board, where she has posted daily dishwashing duties for everyone in the family, a piece of paper is printed with a poem that urges "Don't Quit."
A clear plastic bag containing Derek's medications lies next to the sink.
Cyndie grabs it, along with her camera, and heads outside into the searing sun, where a red carpet leads her from the sidewalk to the limo.
It's recess at Bridgeway Island Elementary School, and the playground is buzzing with children kicking bouncy red balls, shooting hoops, swarming on playground equipment. On the cool fall day, Derek and his mother take small steps, glancing right and left, wary of anyone who might try to stop them.
Derek is not welcome at school without advance permission because he no longer is officially enrolled and his presence could be disruptive, administrators have told Cyndie. He now gets lessons at home, from an unfamiliar teacher. His desk is the kitchen table.
This is not good enough for Cyndie. Derek needs to see his buddies, needs to feel like a regular kid if even for a few minutes, and he's going to do it today, no matter what.
"This is his school," she says. "These are his friends, and he's being treated like an outcast. It's not right."
Cyndie is wearing a black sweat suit and sandals that show off her French pedicure as they wend their way through the hordes of kids and toward the back door of Derek's old classroom. She opens the door and peers inside.
Derek, whose brown hair has grown back impressively, ducks in with a mischievous grin on his face. But he is able to do little more than quietly give a few of his homies high fives before all of the students file out for an assembly. Everyone will get special certificates today, the teacher announces.
Everyone, Cyndie realizes, but Derek.
She shakes her head. Will life ever be the way it was before Derek got cancer? Can he possibly endure another round of chemotherapy and radiation, and months of isolation? Will it all be worth it?
Cyndie will soon have the answers.