Contributed by Julianne Berg
Recently I completed my last session of radiation therapy, and I rang "The Bell." I was much more emotional than I thought I’d be. In fact, it did not occur to me that I would be emotional at all, and I ended up crying most of the way home. Funny how emotions work sometimes.
During my treatment, the radiation therapists were so kind. They were upbeat and happy, comforting and caring, encouraging me at every session. They paid attention and met me where I was each day. They always treated me with dignity and respect. There were days that I went in for radiation, and I was in so much pain I could barely walk, but it was no problem for them. They asked if I needed to postpone treatment. They asked if I could still lay on the table, or if I needed assistance changing, or if I needed a doctor. Their constant presence and gentleness are what we all want as patients. They gave it to me in spades.
What does this have to do with ringing that “I’ve finished this treatment bell?" As I was lying on the table during my last treatment session, I was thinking about that bell. I actually think about that bell a lot when I'm nearing the end of any of my treatments. But more on that bell in a moment.
After I finished my first chemotherapy treatment sessions, I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I didn’t even think of marking the end of it. Not with a photo of me holding up a sign “I’m done,” "I did it," or the ever-popular "I kicked cancer's ass!" I was absolutely positive that if my oncologist’s office had a bell (they don't, thank goodness), I was certainly not going to ring it. I wanted no fanfare from my family and nothing to mark the accomplishment of surviving the brutal six months of treatment. Truly, I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed. I did manage to give my sister a weak high-five as I shuffled out of the infusion room. It felt like a concession to me. Something she needed, so I gave it to her.
You can probably tell where I'm going with this bell, right? In general, I don't like The Bell. In the past, I have never felt the need or desire to ring it. To me, it has always symbolized false hope, or rather an end to all cancer treatments that one must endure. That is never something that I have felt, and while I won’t say it doesn’t make me angry, I believe it is more of a feeling of being resigned to it. So ringing that bell feels false for me. It gives me angst. I want to want to ring it, I want to be a part of a community that celebrates the hard things that cancer patients endure, and yet I also recognize that everyone endures hard things. I am not special. I am simply waking the path of life in front of me, no bell needed.
I’ve had others explain to me that the ringing of the bell is to celebrate the end of the treatment that they just completed — this giant milestone that they just accomplished. Do we ring a bell after all our surgeries? No. Isn’t that a treatment as well? It’s just difficult for me to wrap my head around this stupid bell. Perhaps my anger at having cancer is deeper than I allow myself to acknowledge.
But the end of this course of radiation treatments was different. I think it’s because my radiation therapist had said to me previously that she was going to be there when I rang that bell. In fact, I think she was just so confident that I would want to ring the bell that it never occurred to her that I would not. I think her genuine kind nature and care and connection to me touched me in an unexpected way and I ended up wanting to ring that bell for her.
As a sidebar, in the past I’ve been pretty upset when someone assumed that I wanted to ring the bell. This time was different. I wasn’t upset, and it made me think.
The radiation therapist helped me realize that the bell is not only for me. That stupid bell is also for my family, my children, and my husband, who walk with me each step of the way. My husband takes me to every single one of my appointments. Every one!
The ringing of The Bell is also for the radiation therapists and chemo nurses who care for us and connect with us in the time we are in their care. That bell is bigger than me. And, so on that day, as I got my hugs from my radiation therapists, I cried. I cried because I felt so loved and cared for by these beautiful people, and I wanted to acknowledge that the work they do, supporting patients, is hard — so, so hard.
So I rang that bell with gusto and as a thank you to everyone who helped me get through this latest round of radiation. I also cried because I was done with radiation and because I finally understood that The Bell isn’t only for me. Once again, I was reminded that I am not alone. Ringing that bell is for all of us, and we are in this together.
I am so thankful for that knowledge and so humbled that I have to be reminded of this fact over and over again.
I'm walking on with the bell behind me.
Julianne (Jules) Berg is a colorectal cancer survivor from Virginia and a volunteer Ally Author with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.
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