For 10 weeks now David has been marking, in pictures, our way through active treatment for my breast cancer. There has been a seemingly endless parade of appointments and procedures during what we have come to term (borrowing from Fidel Castro) the “Special Period”.
We are fortunate. Throughout treatment, we have been able to walk between our home and CancerCare Manitoba – 50 minutes each way along the leafy residential streets of central Winnipeg.
Active treatment ended last week with my ringing a bell.
There’s a tradition among cancer radiation treatment facilities, including CancerCare Manitoba. Immediately after the last radiation session, the patient is invited to ring a bell symbolizing the conclusion of that particular treatment and resumption of life anew.
For me, it was a unique opportunity to happily and humbly honour the occasion and the dedicated men and women who have provided me with care in a free and universal healthcare system.
At some centres (for example in Leicester, U.K.), it’s called the “end of treatment bell”. The term is tricky because treatment can typically continue with years-long medication, or radiation is sometimes a prior step to other current treatment such as surgery, and the disease can possibly recur, necessitating still further treatment.
In other centres (in Buffalo and Las Vegas, for instance), it’s called the “victory bell.” This isn’t wholly satisfactory either. It borrows from the commonly used vocabulary of battle, like Nixon’s “War on Cancer” and a world where, together, we will “beat” cancer but haven’t yet, where even the feistiest and most courageous individuals can “lose” their gallant “fight.”
Appropriating the words of Pete Seeger, mine is the bell of freedom. Since receiving my diagnosis of breast cancer on Jan. 30, David and I have been hostage to appointments and procedures made necessary by the disease — a lumpectomy and second surgery to ensure clear margins; an infusion of chemotherapy; and three weeks of daily radiation therapy.
Three more chemotherapy infusions (another two months’ treatment) were cancelled based on the groundbreaking results of the Phase III TAILORx clinical trial released June 3. The study identified a subgroup of breast cancer patients who can be spared chemotherapy — 330,000 yearly in Canada and the U.S. alone.
At our first visit to CancerCare, we met another patient who asked: “With whom do you walk?” With David, of course. The answer she sought was “breast cancer.”
I guess her terminology related to “the cancer journey”, another metaphor I’m not fond of. Every life is a journey, cancer or not. Ask Tom Cochrane.
I find cancer is more a shadow. It’s part of me (so we can’t do battle) and it will now follow me. But it need not necessarily take form.
Active treatment has mutated to simply the daily navigation of a chronic disease.
We walk on.