Sister Mary McNally, vice president of mission at St. Anthony's Hospital, stood in front of a room of cancer survivors to reveal a silver bell surrounded by butterfly stickers mounted on the wall of the lobby of the Cancer Center .
"People often complete their treatment and go out the door," he said. "Now we have that symbolism, yes, I'm free now, this is my new life."
Then, on the first anniversary of his own completion of radiotherapy, McNally rang the bell.
"It's an important part of the healing process," he told the room full of survivors, who lined up on Friday to ring the bell for every year of their survival, ranging from 33 years 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 to the jaw.
The cancer center in St. Anthony was built in 1991. Since then, the overall cancer death rate has decreased by 23 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
Tom McMahon, director of oncology at St. Anthony's, said that although that number does not apply to every type of cancer, in general, cancer survival rates "have improved dramatically."
Part of that occurred as a result of early detection and identification of prevention factors, some of the improved technology in the treatment.
"Some cancer rates have not improved dramatically, and it's frustrating when you do not see that," he said. "But we tell patients the day they were diagnosed that they will become survivors, whether they survive for two weeks or 31 years."
McNally was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2016. He began receiving radiation in February 2017, arriving at the center for treatment from Monday to Friday. The process, he said, could be solitary and frightening.
While the technicians and doctors prepare the patient, he or she must enter only the radiation vault.
McNally remembers repeating herself "Stay still and know that I am God and love" until each session ends.
"It's not painful," he said. "But there is always a fear of the unknown."
While each person's journey is different, McMahon said that closing the successful stage of treatment is an important step in holistic recovery.
Sandra Bailey, manager of the Cancer Center, said they often tell patients that they hope never to see them again.
McNally, who was cancer-free after seven weeks of radiation, said it's helpful to have an external symbol such as the bell.
"It allows you to go on with life freely," he said. "It does not happen so soon, but in a way."
Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.