To Ring, or Not To Ring

In the cancer world, the treatment bell is a big deal.

Steph Kennelly
5 min readApr 2, 2021



I was not too familiar with the bell ringing practice. Then, I joined cancer groups and found my timeline flooded with videos and images of bell ringing.

At my first treatment, I took the lay of the land, and noticed… no bell.

I asked Nurse Erin.

“Hey, where is your end of treatment bell?”

Erin took a deep breath. “Ugh. Don’t get me started on the bell. We have been back and forth, but a recent study showed the harmful effects of bell ringing. So, ultimately, we landed on no bell.”

I wanted to comply with her request not to go down the bell rabbit hole. But I had to admit, I was curious.


I went home and googled “cancer bell ringing.”

Turns out it started in 1996 by a retired admiral and since then cancer centers have been hanging bells for patients to ring on the last day of treatment.

Seems simple enough.

But the bell ringing doesn’t take into account that there are other patients in the center. Patients who will never ring the bell. Stage IV patients that will be in chemotherapy until the last days. Patients are reminded of this each time the bell echos through the walls.

Well, that takes some of the steam out of the celebration, huh?

Here is the interesting part.

Even if you can get past this fact, that for some people bell ringing is painful, recent research has found that bell ringing is actually harmful to the bell ringer as well!

Think of the chemo patient like a Pavlovian Dog. Ring the bell, dog salivates.

For the chemo patient- ring the bell, cement the physical, emotional, and mental turmoil of chemotherapy. As time passes, bell ringers report worse results. Fascinating! Read full study here. Also, read some of the critiques of the study’s limitations.


I am not here to convince you about the bell, one way or the other. Maybe your cancer center has a bell, and you don’t want to ring it. Or, maybe your cancer center doesn’t have a bell, but you’d still like to be acknowledged. Or, maybe you are going to ring the bell, but would like to add extra celebratory elements.

Here are some ideas, alternatives or supplements, to bell ringing.

Quality Time with Friends/Family

With COVID it can be challenging to gather with friends and family. Consider scheduling a zoom call. It felt great at my last treatment to receive a virtual hug from loved ones, all over the county! Gather friends and family and try this healing meditation. An in person celebration may be appropriate as well.

Acts of Service

Offer suggestions for friends and family to acknowledge your milestone with acts of service. Have friends and family mail you letters labeled “letters for chemo.” You can read them during treatment and it makes the time fly by! Another idea is to invite neighbors to decorate your driveway and sidewalk with chalk art. What a wonderful site to come home to!


People love giving gifts! Help out friends and family by suppling some ideas. Fresh flowers or houseplants, a favorite meal, or certificates for a day at the spa. Try gathering head covering donations from family friends for a fun project to see you through treatment. Better yet, create an Amazon Wish List to take out the guesswork and make for easy shopping!

Thank Your Medical Team

Acknowledging your medical team is a great way to mark a milestone. Connect with your local cookie artisan for a custom creation, send flowers, write thank-you notes, make a social media post, or bring in decorations.

Fashion Choices

Although not historically a fashionista, I have found joy in accessorizing my cancer joruney. For my last chemotherapy treatment, I decided to go all in on a bell theme! Find fun earrings, necklace, t-shirt, socks, and head coverings. A fellow chemo sister shared she wore her graduation cap to her last treatment!

Personal Acknowledgement

There are also ways that you can personally acknowledge your milestone. Hang a decorative countdown sign to tick off treatments. There are even fun products, like this chemo mug, that are intended to be smashed on the last day of treatment. How’s that catharsis for you? Also, gift yourself a clean house, or register with Cleaning for a Reason for a complimentary clean. There are also many great Non-Profits sending lovely gift bags to cancer patient. Sign up to receive some goodies at your door step!

And of course, you can always have a bell ringing ceremony in your own space, on your own terms! Maybe consider waiting a few months for a bell ringing ceremony post treatment, when you are feeling strong body-mind-spirit, to cement the good. I would love to hear more about how you have acknowledged a cancer milestone.

Comment on this post or reach out to me directly on instagram @stephkennelly or



Steph Kennelly

Find me on Instagram @stephkennelly