August 30, 2022, around 8:45 a.m.— “So, that’s a good question…in fact, that’s a great question.” My oncologist looked down at his notes and then looked back up at me with a smile. “After today’s treatment, you’re finished.” He paused—maybe waiting to gauge my reaction or my understanding—the smile still on his face. “You can ring the bell, today, if you want to.”
“Ring the bell?”
“Sure, your treatment is finished, so you can go out there and ring that bell.”
I just stared at him. I heard the words, and I understood what he was telling me. But I wasn’t sure I believed it. Or, more accurately, his words had not yet soaked in.
Ring the bell? Wow!
Right Place, Wrong Time
For most Memphians, Tuesday, August 30th, was just another day. Late summer. Hot. Humid. Typical for Memphis. We’d just driven home Monday afternoon from a quick weekend in Huntsville, Alabama. Good food. Great craft beers. Sunday night (August 28th), The Black Keys rocked a sold-out show at The Orion Amphitheater.
Treatment and consultation were scheduled for early Tuesday morning. Routine. No big deal. No scans to obsess about. Just my every six weeks blood work with a thirty-minute IV infusion. Same process I’d undergone for almost two years.
So, on that warm Tuesday morning, my thoughts were elsewhere. Another routine visit. Another morning spent in a waiting room surrounded by reminders of just how random and cruel cancer can be. With Sirius XM tuned to B.B. King’s Bluesville, I listened to Otis Rush pine about a good woman he could never find. Rush’s sharp bluesy guitar licks on Right Place, Wrong Time helped break-up the monotony of early morning traffic, keeping me company as I made the short drive to the West Cancer Center in Germantown.
Yet, in the back of my mind, I thought about the last two years. Two years that have affected just about everyone. For me, the past two years have been almost a blur. We’ve had our share of challenges, heartaches…and many wonderful times.
Always On My Mind
My current treatment regimen started on October 1, 2020. Late that summer, a biopsy confirmed that cancer (metastatic melanoma) had spread to another part of my body. So, in October, I began a new cancer therapy—called immunotherapy—to halt further spread of the disease. Immunotherapy treatments typically last for twenty-four months, or two years. After the initial twenty-four months, it’s up to the doctors to decide next steps.
Thus, my good question…Would I have one more infusion after today?
The doctor’s answer scrambled my routine visit…in a good way.
Ringing the bell. Wow!
In cancer centers around the world, ringing a bell has become a commonplace practice to mark the end of treatment. A celebratory event that provides closure—much like a graduation ceremony—and gives the patient a feeling of control after enduring a treatment journey that can be overwhelming.
Ringing the bell…a milestone that’s always on my mind. During infusions, I’d see the bell hanging at one end of the West Center’s outside labyrinth area. For me, the bell symbolized a goal I wasn’t sure I’d ever achieve. A constant reminder that my treatment journey was far from over. A journey that began long before October 1, 2020. I was originally diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma back in late July 2013…a long, long time ago.
Ringing the bell. Finally.
My doctor and I discussed next steps, including a CT scan on my next scheduled appointment in early October. A ton of emotion whirled around inside my head. The last two months have been stressful, to say the least, so this bit of good news…great news…was almost surreal.
We finished up and my doctor left the exam room. I grabbed my phone and called Vicki, who was at work.
“Guess what?” I said after she answered the phone.
I choked up as I told her the news.
The infusion nurse pulled out the IV needle, pressed a gauze bandage onto my arm, and tossed the IV tubes into a specially-marked trash container. My morning at the West Center was now over, so I gathered my things and headed to the Checkout Desk—my mind still racing with a mix of emotions.
After checking out and re-confirming my next appointment, I walked outside into the Memphis heat, which didn’t seem to bother me. At that moment, nothing else mattered. My cancer journey was about to take a significant turn. A positive turn that I hoped would stay that way for a long, long time.
Now I’m free
Yeah, I’m free
On Sirius XM, a concert crowd sang the chorus to a live version of Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Much like earlier that morning when Otis Rush helped clear the cobwebs from my head, Petty’s song captured the euphoria I felt driving home, surrounded by other drivers who were, most likely, just living another day.
Me? I would soon ring that bell.
Writer’s Note: On October 10th, following blood work and a CT scan, I’ll ring that bell on the outside deck of the West Cancer Center.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.