To Ring or Not To Ring… That is the Question

Before Adrienne was diagnosed with breast cancer and I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the experience, I thought cancer was a one-and-done. You were diagnosed, did treatment, survived… or didn’t. There was either a happy ending or a sad ending, period. I had never met anyone who was “living with cancer,” so I had no idea that was even a thing.  When I was sitting in the companion chair on the chemo ward, it never occurred to me that some of the people in that room were there for the second… or third… or continuous time. When it was time to bang the gong at the end of radiation, post-chemo surgery had already revealed that Adrienne’s cancer had been fully responsive to the toxic sludge that had dripped into her veins for twenty weeks and the radiation was a bonus to make sure it wasn’t only nearly dead, but really quite sincerely dead (random Munchkin reference). I joyously filmed her banging that gong while the staff quietly applauded around her.

If that were to happen today, with what I know now, I’m not sure I would be quite so raucous in my celebration of the moment.

Ringing the bell or banging the gong is another one of those polarizing issues in the cancer community. I have read comments and stories about how it can be uplifting to others in the room, that if they are having a rough chemo or radiation day, hearing the noise that signifies the end can give them the boost they need to carry on. And I have read just as many where someone’s spirit is crushed, where lived experienced is so different and how a metastatic breast cancer patient can feel unseen because they will never be able to celebrate walking away from treatment… because when they walk away from the machines that beep and hum with hope, it too often means that all the spaghetti has been thrown at the wall and nothing more will stick. 

Four quarters and a loonie have equal value, but they are not the same. Patients on a chemo floor all have cancer and are all receiving treatment, yes. The difference is that for some, each bag that is hung represents the hope and dream that it will kill the beast, that it will bring the happily ever after moment.  For others, they know that the beast will never die, and the greatest hope is that the drip, drip, drip will give one more birthday, one more Christmas, one more milestone not missed. 

I am sure that I have been in the same room with young women who have heard the bell and known it would never ring for them, at least not this time around.  Looking back now I think of them seeing the joyful faces of those who can pull that string, those who are experiencing floating balloons and celebratory high-fives, and I wonder.

I wonder at the courage it must take to cry the silent tears of a woman whose hopes and dreams have been shattered because she doesn’t want to ruin the magic for those who can still live there.

I wonder at the strength necessary to hear the constant reminders of the fact that you will forever walk away grieving what might have been and what will never be.

I consider myself to be a compassionate human, so my answer to the question posed is either schedule metastatic patients on a different day or if you really need to have one, move the bell. The symbolism surrounding the bell being rung is just as present in the entry level to the hospital as it is anywhere else, and there may be many more people willing and able to commemorate the occasion with them as they leave. And if someone is uncomfortable in the vicinity of a bell or someone ringing it, they’re not held captive by an IV hooked up to their body and that will give them the choice to do whatever they need to do in the moment.

Cancer takes away so many choices.  Let’s not let this be this be one of them.


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Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California.  She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure.  When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed!  Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter, Adrienne, as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.


Read more from Debbie on her experience as a caregiver to her daughter, here.

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