I rang the bell on February 7th. Everyone who has been there remembers that moment.
The bell. The celebration of the end!
For me, the end of radiation, for others it’s chemo. I had so looked forward to ringing the bell. I remember seeing it’s polished brass sheen glinting at me the first time I walked into the cancer center, even before my diagnosis was certain. I knew what it meant, why it was there and what it was for. And I wanted my turn to ring it. To win. To be a champion. To be a Survivor.
The Legend of the Bell
The bell is the fat lady of cancer treatment. And she’s given A LOT of credence. Each oncology wing, chemo department and radiation hall have their own.
The bell is revered, it’s part of the zeitgeist of what I’ve come to call “Active Treatment”. A lot of cancer staffs have their own pomp and circumstance to add to this momentous occasion. There are fun songs, dancing, I saw a gong once, a Baptist choir performing Amazing Grace for an elementary school teacher (don’t Google that unless you want a good cry). For me, it was a bubble-blowing-gun and some kind of noisemaker…
The memory is fuzzy, but I know I choked down tears. My husband and 6-month-old son had come to see me “graduate”. But instead of a cap and gown, I had a bathrobe and a receding hairline.
The debt is the same though.
Reaching the Summit
It was noisy and exciting and emotional. I was finally done sharing my body with science and doctors.
Just thirteen months earlier, my husband and I walked hand in hand into our first prenatal appointment/ We were nervous yet excited for the future, and ready to hear that little heartbeat on the ultrasound.
Five months later I was having an ultrasound of my breast instead, and the rest, as they say, is history. Breast Cancer, lumpectomy at 32 weeks, give birth, and then fight back in full force.
I felt like I had been under medical supervision in some way, my feelings, my shape, my weight and bodily functions had been fair conversation points for WAY too long. I was ready to be Me again. To have my life back.
“As soon as I ring that bell,” I told myself, “The life I was promised is just on the other side.”
It was more than a feeling, more than a thirst. I was parched for my independence.
Hollywood Cancer & Other Silly Myths
Active Treatment may as well be called “Hollywood Cancer”.
Ready? Close your eyes and think…1 2 3 CANCER! What do you see?
Chemo, radiation, surgery, hair loss, nausea, low cell counts. These are the major landmarks on the Western Cancer Treatment Tour Bus and once you have completed the route, you ring the bell, and get the hell off the bus! You ring the bell and call it quits.
Done. Celebrations are in order, right? Break out the bubbly?
“Oh, you must be so excited to be finished! What a relief, right?!”
“I’m so glad you are done and all better now!”
“So, you ‘had’ cancer, right? You don’t have it anymore, remember?”
“You should be grateful! you are a survivor and you’re fine.”
“Don’t worry, honey. You’ll waste your life worrying about it coming back.”
“You don’t really talk about it much.”
“Why do you bring it up so much?”
“I bet you can’t wait to (insert thing I wasn’t able or interested in doing while in treatment)!”
I know that this is becoming a sort of “Open letter from one Snowflake Millennial to the Internet, as if it is a solo entity to which I can communicate” type of post, but that’s not the point. My words are meant to do two things: Inform and Validate.
If you don’t know, this is how it is, or was, at least from my perspective.
If you do know, I’m with you. I’m here for you. You aren’t alone. None of us are.
Who Died and Made You So Smart?
I feel uniquely qualified to do these things. My mother rang the bell herself, twice. Once in 1989 and once in 2006.
The third time she was not so lucky. The 6th anniversary of her death was only 3 days after I rang my own bell.
So. What happens after the bell stops ringing?
For me, it felt like being released from prison after a 25-year sentence only to be dropped off in hipster Brooklyn.
Sure, it seems like a great time and the food does taste better. But I’m so confused, and I’m scared, and I’m still trying to figure out what the absolute f*ck just happened to me.
Settling Into My New Life
So yeah, I’m grateful. I’m alive! I’m no longer the immune-deficient, balding, foggy headed post-partum patient that I was. I have a job, I drive myself (something I didn’t know I would have to lose periodically), I use product in my hair and I have some life behind my eyes. And I laugh, a lot. I have good days.
But the old life? The old Me? I cannot get there. I don’t think I ever will. My mother certainly didn’t, and I’ve seen too many examples of how penetrative this disease is, both literally and figuratively, to be that naive. These hardened little metastases have burrowed into the corners of my marriage, my confidence, my yoga practice, my sense of self, my sense of safety in this world.
In short, cancer affects us all, patients and loved ones, now and for a while after. It stings. It’s tentacles are long. It’s venom sharp and grinding. It just takes time. It takes time to heal.
So no, ringing the bell didn’t rid me of the little voice that whispers to me in my softest, most vulnerable moments, “Could it happen again? To me?”
But I do feel better. I feel better on the inside, on the outside, in my heart and in my mind. I feel healthier and I feel safer. I’m doing what I am “supposed to do” to stay this way.
I’m going to be a One Bell Wonder.