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by Jane-Marie Bahr
Editor’s note: Jane-Marie Bahr shares her personal experience of her last day of radiation treatment at Mayo Clinic Health System.
On my final day of radiation treatment, I woke up to snow squalls. Yet, I could not wait to get to the Cancer Center early to finish “this thing.” Recalling the list of tests and procedures that I had gone through to eradicate cancer from my right breast, I felt relieved. I simply wanted to forget the nightmare of the past four months and enjoy the rest of the holidays. Enjoy the rest of my life.
I wondered how the last visit with the radiation oncologist and his nurse practitioner would go. Over my third cup of coffee, I remembered how frequently I got him laughing during our weekly conversations, and I had grown to like his laugh. It radiated around the room, bounced off chairs and walls, and lifted my mood. One week, he seemed to challenge me about books, and I had responded with amusement. The next week, I handed him titles of random literary works from writers who excited me. I told him that writers made my life worthwhile and gave me a purpose. I even quoted an Episcopal priest that helped me through treatment. His nurse thought the quote helpful. I pondered it daily, especially the words, “The only way out is through.” I had been through it all right — through the minefield of cancer diagnosis and treatment. I didn’t know what the doctor made of all this quoting business, but I thought it must be memorable.
At the Cancer Center, everything moved quickly. The beeper I was issued went off, signaling that my last treatment would soon begin. I hurried to the dressing room, unlocked the door, and donned a hospital gown. I took a deep breath and whispered, “Okay, this is it!” I pulled the dressing room door closed, walked into radiation therapy, where the therapists were waiting, and told them, “Yeah! Let’s do this!” One more time, I stretched out on the hard table, positioned myself, and listened to the droning of the huge disc-like machine moving across my chest. Its sci-fi appearance made me think of Star Trek. It was definitely strange. It looked as though it could eat me, hovering over me like a giant Cyclops. I closed my eyes, waiting for the routine to end. It usually went fast.
The audible words, “You can put your arms down,” pleased me. It’s done, I thought, being helped up from the table when one of the two therapists held my arm to pull me up. The second therapist held a tiny white box in her hand, and I, who was now standing, peered down at it. “We have a parting gift for you from radiation oncology.” I gasped, never expecting anything from them. My eyes welled up, and I said, “It’s lovely. I’ll wear it proudly. Thank you!” I paused, taken aback by this token, and blurted, “I don’t even know your names. Don’t even have a greeting card for you.” The two therapists smiled and told me I would do fine when I voiced a fear about a tumor ever returning. My skin care nurse stood at the door waiting to act as a guide to another room where I would meet with the doctor and his assistant, a nurse practitioner. These escorts had varied from week to week. As I left the therapy room and headed for my visit with the radiation oncologist, I thought I had crossed the finish line and my farewell was cause for celebration. Still wearing my hospital gown, I grabbed my clothes from the dressing room, hung the key on the doorknob, and followed my guide to another room down the hall and around the corner.
While waiting for the doctor and the nurse practitioner, I pulled the box out of my purse and looked at the lapel pin. The words “Hope” and “Radiation Oncologist” encircled the sparkling blue gemstone. Hope for a full recovery was my prayer. When I heard a knock at the door, I dropped the pin back into my purse. The nurse practitioner entered first, and we chatted about setting up a Survivorship meeting a few months later at the Center. We talked about diet and exercise. Ideas for recipes. In a short span of time, I heard another knock, and the doctor stepped into the room and shook my hand.
“You made it,” he said, smiling, adjusting his bow tie.
“I did,” I replied, thanking him for his expertise and care.
With a twinkle in his eyes, he asked, “Are you going to miss us?”
“I won’t miss the treatment.” I laughed. “I wouldn’t want to return.”
He nodded. “Maybe, I’ll see you in the mall sometime,” he said, teasing me.
“If you do, I’ll wave at you.” I seldom shopped at malls, I thought, but never admitted that to them.
Minutes fled past, and after discussing other cancer issues, the doctor shook my hand, told me to call him if necessary, and wished me a Merry Christmas.
“I haven’t done anything about Christmas. I’ve been focused on treatments,” I said to the nurse after he left.
“You can start tomorrow,” she said, walking past my chair. “I’ll see you at the bell ceremony."
“What?” I asked softly. “What is a bell ceremony?”
“Before you leave the building, you ring the bell in the lobby three times for good luck.”
“I had better do it then,” I said, although I had wanted to leave quietly, with no fanfare.
I laughed a little. What was that about? Already I felt slightly embarrassed by it all.
After the nurse left, I dressed hastily and before leaving, glanced around the room. My visits to radiation were finished. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that now. I had longed for this day, though. Would I miss them? Although I had invested weeks with these people, I shoved the idea of missing anyone aside. I was free! Shutting the door to the room, I walked down the hallway to the lobby. When I rounded the corner, I came to an abrupt halt, my eyes widening into blue opals. Caught completely by surprise, I stared at the row of nurses and radiation therapists lined up side by side, silently waiting for me to appear. My breathing quickened. This is a ritual, I thought, stunned at being in the spotlight.
Gathering myself, I walked to the Survivor Bell on the wall, a gold bell attached to a wooden plaque with an inscription on it etched in gold. I grabbed the thick white rope to pull and looked toward the nurses and therapists. They were watching me, smiling at me, anticipating the bell ringing. I breathed deeply, telling myself to go for it! I clanged the bell three times in succession. One. Two. Three. The rich tones of the bell echoed throughout the lobby after each strike. The sharp sounds startled me. Afterwards, I dropped my hand, hearing rounds of loud applause. I looked toward the nurses and therapists along with the countless patients sitting in the waiting room. They were all applauding me! A festive spirit arose within me, and I twirled around, curtsying to the crowd, laughing, and exclaiming, “I might cry.” Spontaneously I began hugging all the nurses and therapists, thanking them for making my final day so special, so awesome, and so unforgettable! It would become a memory I would cherish.
It was then I felt myself floating. I was in the clouds! Radiation Oncology did it up right! They were sending me off in victory, I thought. They wanted me to win against cancer. They cared.
I wanted to soar, knowing, too well, the pricelessness of having more time. These medical professionals had given me a second chance at living. I blushed, remembering how I had once thought how boring the next twenty years would be without my late husband. My cancer journey made me realize each and every year of my life should count for something. Make it happen became my new motto. Not as a bucket list, but as a destiny list. Whatever called to me from the universe imprinted its gravitas upon me. There was a reason I was still alive. I believed that. Walking to my car in the parking lot, I looked back at the Cancer Center, grateful for it, but grateful to be away now. Grateful enough to create new dreams.
“Thanks to all of you,” I whispered. “I’ll never forget this day.”