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November 2012

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Today was a big day. I had my 28th and final dose of radiation. And just like that - 300 days after my breast cancer diagnosis - I am essentially done with treatment.*


They have a lovely tradition in the Proton Lab, whereby "graduates" get to ring a bell to signal completion of their regimen:


BellIt reminds me of the famous passage from John Donne's Meditation XVII (and Hemingway's novel named after it):

"No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Donne was of course referring to the old village custom of ringing a bell to inform the community when someone dies, his point being that humanity is interconnected and a loss of one is a loss to all.

This bell is designed to inform the community that one has survived, and they did it with the help of the community. At no time does the phrase "no man is an island" ring truer than when you are faced with a difficult situation, as I was for the better part of this year. I couldn't have made it this far without the support of tons of people along the way, and for that, I am very thankful.


*with the exception of a daily dose of Tamoxifen for the next 5 years

Red Badge of Courage

I have now completed 22 radiation treatments (!) and have my red badge of courage* to show for it - the skin on my chest is burnt and blistering at this point, and the left side of my throat is sore where the radiation field crosses it. But I only have 6 more treatments to go!


And in a strange turn of events, I will be sorry to see my treatment come to an end. I won't miss the radiation itself, but I will miss seeing my radiation crew - the group of friendly faces that I've seen every day over the last 5 weeks. It includes all of my radiation techs - Ron, Ryan, John, John, and Scott, plus nurse Kathy, Dr. MacDonald, and Paul at the front desk. And then there are the other cancer patients that are on the same schedule as me - prostate, breast, and pediatric cases - we sit in our hospital johnnies and make small talk every day. When one finishes treatment, we all go watch as they ring the celebratory bell (more on that later), and clap and cheer for them. The strange circumstance of our ill health brought us all together, and in the most uncomfortable of situations we are collectively able to find comfort, and often even laughs.

I've made a life-long friend in my fellow patient, Janeen. We tend to be scheduled back-to-back, and kill time together when they're running behind or the machine is broken (yes...that's happened twice). Here we are after a much-needed spa visit over the weekend:


I also made it out to a special event last week - the annual Kenneth B. Schwartz Compassionate Healthcare Dinner. Ken Schwartz was a healthcare attorney in Boston who got diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at the age of 40. He was treated at MGH, and although he eventually succumbed to the disease, he was so moved by the compassionate care he received there that he created an organization to nurture compassion in healthcare across the country. The Schwartz Center now has a presence in 300 hospitals nationwide, where they facilitate rounds to educate physicians on the importance of providing compassionate care, and each year they host a dinner to recognize those practioners who embody the idea of it. My employer, PARTNERS+simons, has worked with the Schwartz Center for years, and some of my coworkers actually designed the event invitation below. It was wonderful to attend the dinner this year, after having been on the receiving end of this type of care, not only from my radiation team but also my oncology and surgical teams before them. It really does make a difference when your medical team sees you as a person, and not just a patient.


*(sans cowardice!)