The year after my family arrived in Canada, one of the great icons of rock and roll was born. It was 1958 and Johnny B. Goode arrived fully formed. He didn’t ever grow any older. He never learned to read and write so well, but he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell.
I heard a bell ring last Wednesday. It was my second trip to Chemo Camp, as a friend who’s been there, done that called it the other day. The room was full. Treatment was backed up. The infusion room had been shut down over the Easter holiday as nurses and doctors and pharmacists and cleaners had a well-earned four-day weekend. When they got back to work on Tuesday there was a backlog of patients to get through. They were getting it done. They always do.
One thing about being diagnosed with cancer is that you never feel alone. You never are. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that 225,800 new cases of cancer and 83,300 deaths from cancer will occur in Canada in 2020. Three of every ten people who die in our country are taken out by cancer. That’s a lot of very good men, women and children.
I took my place in the queue and waited my turn. All the chairs were always in use. When one was vacated, it was quickly and fully cleaned, sanitized, and made ready for the next occupant. Some people knit while the bag of clear liquid drips into a vein. Others chat together about grandchildren or gardening. Or about other random bits and pieces of life. I brought my iPad with a Library e-copy of Bruce Cockburn’s autobiography Rumours of Glory.
Occasionally, as we go through this together, we’ll look at things to do and read while you’re on the bag. But not today.
I was near the end of the drip when I heard the bell. People around me stopped talking and started clapping. When I asked a nurse what it was all about, she told me that some people ring the bell after their last chemo treatment. Not everyone does, but a lot do.
When I got home, I did a Google search and found that the practice is not universal. It’s controversial, clouded by sensitivities that always loom large when cancer’s in play. From the moment you sit in your doctor’s office and listen as she outlines the diagnosis and the prognosis, there is an ocean of emotion that crashes over you in waves. They hit when you least expect them.
The bell ringing runs up against competing compassions. On the one hand is a patient who reached a significant milestone. On the other is a room full of people, some of whom may never see the end of treatment. One person’s need for a celebration conflicts with another’s cause for despair.
Some clinics, like the one in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, took the bell out. The Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, also in Toronto, kept it and named it the Bravery Bell. Regional cancer centres in Hamilton, London and Kitchener still have theirs. Whether you want to ring it or not is your choice.
What will I do when I get to that point? It’s hard to say and I don’t want to jinx myself. If I did, I would have to touch wood three times, turn around seven times, and toss a pinch of salt over my left shoulder. I’m not going to take any chances, so I’ll make up my mind when the time comes.
It will be a tough compulsion to resist though. I just like ringing a bell.