Ringing The Bell

by Jane Ashley

Did you ring the bell after you finished chemotherapy or radiation? Or was your cancer center one of those who doesn’t provide a bell to ring at the end of treatment? Perhaps you are one of those who never even knew about “ringing the bell.”

Ring The Bell

How did the tradition begin of ringing the bell?

Tradition has it that “ringing the bell” began in 1996 at MD Anderson in Houston, TX. Rear Admiral and former Navy Seal, Irve Le Moyne, a head and neck cancer patient, wrote a poem and installed a brass bell at the radiation center. The poem says what many of us feel.

Ring this bell
Three times well,
Its toll to clearly say
My treatment’s done,
This course is run,
And I’m on my way.

And so the tradition began that when patients completed their rounds of radiation and/or chemotherapy that they would ring the bell three times and recite the poem to signify that they had completed their treatment.

At Sanford Cancer Center, a second poem (author unknown) is beside the “Ring the Bell” poem. It reads:

I ring this bell for myself and every other
cancer patients that has, or is, or will walk the
journey that a cancer diagnosis brings.

I ring this bell for my caregivers, family, friends,
and perfect strangers who have given time, talents,
prayer and encouragement on my behalf.

I ring this bell for each employee that works within
these walls … thank you for the compassionate
care you choose to give each day.

My praise and thanksgiving is for each of you
and to God, the giver of your life and mine.
I ring this bell, I ring this bell, I ring this bell for you!

Ring The Bell Photo

Why don’t all cancer treatment centers have a bell?

The decision to have or not have a bell varies from cancer center to cancer center. Some centers believe that out of respect for patients who are terminal that they will not have a bell. They realize that for these patients, it is cruel and insensitive for these incurable patients to have to witness these joyous bell ringing ceremonies over and over again.

Some terminally ill cancer patients have chemotherapy or radiation for palliative reasons — to shrink a tumor that is pressing on a nerve. Others with metastatic cancer are on chemo for life. New treatments are offering new hope for extended lives, but they must continue to have treatments (either oral or by infusion or both) for life. Immuno-oncology drugs provide cures for some and extended life for others. For those who remain in treatment, it must be poignant to watch celebratory bell ringing.

The infusion center where I received treatment did not have bell. They had a sign that proclaimed “Last Chemo” that a patient could hold while the activities director took a picture of a patient who wanted that memento. The staff didn’t make a big fuss over a patient, and many patients slept right through others’ brief, celebratory moments. My radiation center didn’t have a bell either — instead they “awarded” each patient a certificate of graduation.

Last Chemo9 30 15

Reasons why many centers still offer “ringing the bell”

The location of the bell varies, from being in the infusion room to being in the hall to being in the lobby. Some centers place the bell on the outside of their building at the entrance. There are many reasons that a patient might want to ring the bell; these reasons are the reasons that many cancer treatment centers offer the bell.

Provides hope. For those just beginning treatment, hearing a patient ring the bell offers hope and strength that they will complete their treatment and be able to ring that bell too. Hope is powerful for those just beginning treatment.

Celebrate other noteworthy events. Some patients celebrate good scan results or improving blood counts by ringing the bell. Some patients even celebrate their birthday while having chemo by ringing the bell.

Feeling of accomplishment. Ringing the bell is meaningful to many patients because ringing the bell provides a feeling of accomplishment. Patients feel they did what “they had to do.” Others proclaim that “they endured” their 30 days of radiation treatment. For them, it is a proud moment.

Other ways to celebrate the end of radiation therapy or chemotherapy

Celebrate Your Last Chemo

Ringing the bell is a common event in cancer clinics throughout the U.S. and Canada. Large bells are mounted on the walls of the center – sometimes, bells are donated in memory of a loved one. Sometimes, a gong is substituted for a bell. Patients might be by themselves or family members may accompany them to celebrate the end of treatment.

Other patients might choose to acknowledge the end of their active treatment in different ways. Their family might host a family dinner to help mark the end of treatments for their family member. Some patients might decide to burn their old sweats that they wore to chemo. Other patients may get a brand new “super short” hair cut to help cope with their thinning hair. Another patient might host a party for the friends who helped them during treatment. Some patients might send token gifts to their chemo or radiation nurses to celebrate the support that these staff members provided. Other patients might celebrate with a bucket list trip afterward.

And then, there are those that will never be able to ring that bell due to being incurable, or in maintenance treatments for the rest of their foreseeable life. Some of those say that it's painful for them to hear that bell ringing. 

Ways to Celebrate The End of Cancer Treatment

Many patients are worn out by a long and harsh treatment and aren’t in a celebratory mood. Others wonder if their treatments worked. Others aren’t comfortable when their oncologist brightly tells them, “I’ll see you in three months.” The transition to being a survivor is difficult for many. Some of us feel comforted by the frequent appointments and regular lab work to ensure that we are still okay.

I can remember a lady at our cancer center who dressed up for her last chemo— all in pink, even a pink feather boa around her neck and a tiara on her head. She was so happy to be finished, and her smile reflected her joy.

No matter how we mark our last treatment, it’s a day that we will never forget.

There’s no right or wrong way to mark the end of cancer treatment. Cancer patients face a myriad of emotions — from gratitude and joy to feeling a little bit lost and wondering about the future — that’s part of the reason that our website is named WhatNext.

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