Friday, June 24, 2022

What does it mean to ring the bell in a cancer unit?

 He rang the bell and everyone clapped—so happy—but the patient looked tired, and then he cried. 

My journeys to the infusion unit started in 2020, and I’ve seen several people ring the bell. Some look ecstatic…others deflated.

“What does it mean?” I asked a nurse the first time I witnessed this.

“They’ve finished treatments. They’re done.”

At first I thought this meant they were in remission, but after almost two years, I’ve come to realize otherwise. It doesn’t always mean they’ve beat cancer; sometimes it simply means they’ve ended this leg of their journey. While some head to a happier cancer-free life, others—like the man I saw yesterday—are wheeled away to palliative care.

This journey has been excruciatingly hard, and since 2020 I’ve desperately wanted to ring that damn bell.

By the way, they call it “a bell,” but it’s actually a Zildjan gong. You can’t put something like that in front of a musician and expect them not to touch it! But it’s harder to reach than a treasure in “Indian Jones”! So many nurses swarm around it, and their queen—the charge nurse—hardly ever leaves its side.

That’s why yesterday seemed so surreal. I went to leave the infusion room, and my path to the “bell” was free and clear. I sneaked up to it—probably looking like Gollum (after my back surgery), then I swiftly lifted the mallet… Just when I was about to finally hit that coveted thing, a nurse saw me!

“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said right as my daughter snagged a couple of pictures. “Is today your last treatment?”

“Well … No,” I said to the gong police. “But a girl can dream, can’t she?”

She broke out laughing. “You’ll get to ring it someday! And it’ll be wonderful.”

So I set the mallet down, veeeery slowly, and left.

Later that day a medical specialist said my labs looked almost better than they have since I started this journey. “You actually might beat this, Elisa. We’re still worried about the cancer in your lower back, BUT the cancer is still gone in your upper spine! We’re getting more scans of your lower back in July. It seemed impossible before, but now I honestly think you have a chance. You could beat this!”

This is something new. I’ve heard they could lengthen my life, help keep the cancer stable longer, give me a few more years... But to “beat this”? My heart soared!

So, I didn’t actually hit the gong, but I did hold the mallet in my hand—and it felt AWESOME. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but I’m starting to feel so excited.

Despite hurting and being exhausted from my latest cancer treatment and infusion for my bones, I am so happy right now. Hope…well, it’s a powerful thing.

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