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Emails to my Therapist

Ringing The Radiation Bell

Dear Nicholas, Yesterday morning Bob rang the end-of-radiation bell in the hospital hall. Ringing three times is a tradition–now somewhat controversial–for hitting a milestone in cancer treatment.

It wasn’t a wildly exuberant moment. We were late finding out about this ceremony and so hadn’t been imagining it. Also, we’re both a little tired.


The Admiral’s Cancer Radiation Bell

I read that the custom likely began in 1996 when a rear admiral brought a brass bell to his last treatment at the University of Texas cancer center to follow the naval way of ringing a bell to indicate a job completed. Since then bells have started ringing in hospital halls across the  country.

For some people, the bell-ringing is a gathering, the start of a party. The Texas center reports one patient bringing a dozen friends in evening dresses who then attended a formal dinner.

What’s Not To Like?

The practice has also, to my surprise, become controversial. When I first saw online references to objections to this small celebration, I was puzzled about how anyone could object. I soon learned that the sound of the bell can be upsetting to patients who will be in treatment for the rest of their lives and to those for whom the end of treatment means the end of hope.

Thinking and Re-Thinking

So some are arguing for the end of such bell-ringing, with another quieter recognition of the milestone instead.

Riding home from the last radiation, hospital IDs still in place.


Must We Hide Joy and Celebration?

I have mixed feelings about this, but I lean heavily in favor of letting bells continue to ring. The world would be grim indeed if we had to make sure no one with troubles heard the sounds of celebration.

And Yet…

Another reason has arisen for not ringing the bell. A study at USC has found that the bell-ringers tend to be more distressed later than those who finished a round of treatment and left the bell unrung. Why? The researcher theorizes that the emotional arousal of the moment makes the cancer treatment harder to forget; it “locks in” painful memories of the experience.

It’s a surprising finding. Certainly no one should feel obligated to ring a bell. Maybe it’s better for all to let the moment quietly pass. But let’s not let the custom of celebration pass, when properly timed it can lock in memories of good things.

At My House

I doubt Bob’s bell-ringing will lock in bad memories. His course of radiation has been so much easier than many. Only in the last couple of weeks has he felt any side effects, and these have been limited to waves of fatigue and muscle weakness passing in a few hours or a couple of days.

And we didn’t wear formalwear and head to a formal dinner. Instead we took a mid-morning run through the Biscuitville drive-through.


Bob’s bacon biscuit was a dietary indulgence but probably won’t cause him lingering emotional pain.

Still, it was so nice to have good medical news and will be just fine not to drive to Duke Regional Hospital in north Durham tomorrow morning.

And More…

I have other happy medical news.  The friend whose serious illness and medical crisis I was grieving  months ago has rallied. She’s back to nearly normal, feels good, and still has good years ahead of her. I am happy.

Not all medical news is bad. Not all celebrations create bad memories. Fortunately.  One way or another, we do need to keep on celebrating.



Later: at dinner we broke out Bob’s get-well present from our friends in Seattle, which unlocked   good memories. Perhaps we’ll keep finding ways to celebrate for a while.




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  • Mamie
    August 5, 2021 at 2:27 pm Reply

    Sweet moment, that bell-ringing. Hope it was the sound of years of good health for you both. <3

    • Peggy Payne
      August 5, 2021 at 2:50 pm Reply

      I know you know the sound of that bell, Mamie. And I’m happy it seems to have worked so well for you.

  • Andy Arnold
    August 5, 2021 at 2:31 pm Reply

    I think the bell ringing is nice. You guys are clearly not on a sodium restricted diet… Congratulations on the radiation completed

    • Peggy Payne
      August 5, 2021 at 2:50 pm Reply

      Thanks, Andy. And you are definitely salt-aware. Just don’t swallow any Caribbean. Bob also limits salt. Except for yesterday.

  • Henry Scott
    August 5, 2021 at 3:21 pm Reply

    I love hearing about the ringing of that bell! Such good news!

    • Peggy Payne
      August 5, 2021 at 3:22 pm Reply

      Thanks, Hank! I loved the sound of it myself. I hope things are good with you!

    • Anonymous
      August 5, 2021 at 11:43 pm Reply

      Congratulations on reaching the end of your treatments, Bob. I’m glad you rang the bell and had a celebratory biscuit. Those occasions need marking somehow, and you will remember the day, I’m sure. Happy for your friend, Peggy , and I know it pleases you. I am grateful for you all.

      • Peggy Payne
        August 6, 2021 at 2:24 pm Reply

        Thanks, Anon, on behalf of Bob and my also-anonymous getting-better friend. Wishing you the best of health as well.

  • Rebecca Dnistran
    August 6, 2021 at 10:43 am Reply

    If I recall, and my memory may fail me, Bob has his own bell ringing rituals in the group room. I’m so pleased to hear his treatment is over. May the sound of laughter fill your ears for years to come.

    • Peggy Payne
      August 6, 2021 at 2:26 pm Reply

      Yes! Yes! Bob’s cowbell, Rebecca. We’d both forgotten about that. In a therapy group, he always rings a loud cowbell if someone says that they’re going to “try” to do something. Instead, he wants them to say that they’ll “do” it. Your memory serves you well.

  • Lee Grohse
    August 16, 2021 at 9:42 pm Reply

    Glad to hear you two have the conclusion of radiation treatment to celebrate. And also happy your friend is doing well, Peggy. And as all old SNL fans must say “More cowbell!”

    • Peggy Payne
      August 16, 2021 at 10:16 pm Reply

      Thanks, Lee! I’d forgotten the classic SNL cowbell skit. I’ll be glad when their season starts again.

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