Is the Cancer Patient ‘Survivors Bell’ Insensitive?

Many hospitals and cancer centers share a tradition for patients who complete treatment: the patients ring a ‘survivors bell’ to signify the accomplishment.

The so-called “survivors bell” rung to signify the end of chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer patients is under fire. Some feel it’s insensitive to other patients.

Some feel it’s particularly insensitive to cancer patients who may have a poor prognosis.

The ringing of the survivors bell is a very meaningful moment to patients who’ve just completed their treatment.

Here’s an example, posted to YouTube with this included in the caption: “Donna was diagnosed with stage IV Breast Cancer. After 3 years and 8 months of fighting she has finally won the fight.”

Here’s another video, published by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, featuring Tink, who battled leukemia:

These are emotional moments, to be sure. They represent the moment everyone who faces a cancer diagnosis hopes they will reach: the end of treatment and the first day of the rest of their lives without cancer.

So why would anyone take offense?

The issue here isn’t about patients who reach such a fantastic moment taking time to mark the occasion or celebrate it.

The issue, instead, is the fact that not everyone who’s present during those celebrations will ever reach such a milestone. Some complain the bell ringing is insensitive for people who have a terminal diagnosis.

Part of me would like to believe that if I were in that situation, hearing someone else ring the bell would give me hope. There are cases in which “miracles” happen, even in grim scenarios. Just last month, in fact, an 11-year-old girl had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor only to learn from her doctors that the tumor inexplicably disappeared. Doctors claimed there was no medical explanation for it.

There are no guarantees that such an incredible scenario could play out again. And you’ll note that the first video in this story was of a woman who’d been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.

Part of me would like to believe that even if doctors couldn’t give me hope of being able to one day ring the bell myself, I’d still want to celebrate (even silently) someone else’s good fortune. I’d like to believe I wouldn’t resent their outcome. And I’d like to believe that’s the way all of us should feel for each other.

But then part of me does understand how difficult it might be to be reminded of the breaks that come to some and not to others. For some, I can imagine it could feel like salt in open wounds.

I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, and while I’m sure none of the patients ringing the bell intend to remind others of their particular misery, that sentiment doesn’t seem to be enough to ease the pain they feel at what they obviously consider a slight.

The solution could be fairly simple.

It may come down to something as simple as relocating the bell. Maybe there’s a room at the other end of the hospital or on another floor where cancer patients aren’t close enough to hear.

Maybe there’s an administration wing or even a lobby that would be out of earshot of other patients that could serve as a better location for the bell.

By all accounts from friends of mine who are currently undergoing chemotherapy, completing such a brutal treatment unquestionably deserves celebration. For those patients who aren’t able to look forward to a similar outcome, surely there are arrangements that can be made to avoid hard feelings.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.