Sister Mary McNally, vice president of mission at St. Anthony’s Hospital, stood in front of a room of cancer survivors to unveil a silver bell surrounded by butterfly stickers mounted to the wall of the Cancer Center lobby.
"So often people complete their treatment and they go out the door," she said. "Now we have that symbolism. ‘Yeah, I’m free now. This is my new life.’?"
Then, on the one-year anniversary of her own completion of radiation therapy, McNally rang the bell.
"It’s an important part of the healing process," she told the room full of survivors, who lined up Friday to ring the bell for each year of their survival, ranging from 33 years of being cancer free to Gina Forgetta, who completed her radiation therapy earlier that day.
"It’s been a long road and this is the end," said Forgetta, who had been coming to St. Anthony’s for the past six weeks for radiation on her jaw.
The cancer center at St. Anthony’s was built in 1991. Since then, the mortality rate for cancer as a whole has fallen by about 23 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
Tom McMahon, director of oncology at St. Anthony’s, said while that number isn’t applicable to each type of cancer, on the whole, cancer survival rates have "improved dramatically."
Some of that has come as a result of early detection and identifying prevention factors, some from improved technology in treatment.
"Some cancer rates haven’t improved dramatically, and it’s frustrating when you don’t see that," he said. "But we say to patients the day they’ve been diagnosed, they become a survivor, whether they survive for two weeks or 31 years."
McNally was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2016. She began radiation in February 2017, coming into the center for treatment Mondays through Fridays. The process, she said, could be solitary and frightening.
While technicians and doctors prepare the patient, he or she must enter the radiation vault alone.
McNally remembers repeating to herself "Be still and know I am God and love" until each session was over.
"It’s not painful," she said. "But there’s always a fear of the unknown."
While each person’s journey is different, McMahon said bringing closure to a successful treatment stage is an important step in holistic recovery.
Sandra Bailey, Cancer Center manager, said they often tell patients they hope to never see them again.
McNally, who was cancer-free after seven weeks of radiation, said it’s helpful to have an external symbol like the bell.
"It allows you to freely get on with life," she said. "It doesn’t happen that soon, but after a fashion."
Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.