Children who've completed their final cancer treatment saunter to the brass ship's bell on the wall at St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children's Hospital in Charlotte. They reach for the ribbon – in a color they've chosen – and clang the bell to celebrate their milestone.
Staff members line the hallway and shower the child with confetti. Then hugs. Relatives and friends take photos. Tears and smiles spread like wildfire.
The sweet ring-the-bell tradition symbolizes hope, and culminates a family's arduous journey that often stretches for months. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, a time of recognition of a disease that last year struck more than 10,000 children 14 and under nationwide.
"For these kids there are so many small moments we try to celebrate, but treatment can seem like it's this marathon and you don't know when it's going to end," said Dr. Jessica Bell, a Novant Health pediatric hematologist/oncologist at the clinic. "I think to have that big sense of accomplishment that they've achieved this huge goal of making it through the treatment, it's very positive and affirming, and celebrates how strong and resilient they've been."
Not every young patient is fortunate enough to ring the bell. Last year, cancer claimed the lives of 1,190 children in the U.S., according to National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
The fact that many children miss the bell-ringing milestone “always stays with you," Bell said. "To be able to do that (ceremony) for each child who completes treatment, it kind of reminds us of why we do this."
The bell-ringing breaks out about every five weeks or so.
Katy Wind, a Novant Health child life specialist at the clinic, said the bell gets a lot of attention as children pass by it during every visit. Quickly, they learn to be patient.
"Like a kid in a candy store, you see the prize, but you can't quite touch it yet," Wind said. "But the ceremonies are amazing. I feel like you spend so much of your treatment waiting and anticipating things, and a lot of them aren't good. Now, this is something they've waited for, and worked very hard for. They've been brave and it's exciting on the other side."
Bell, who has been at Novant Health for 10 years, said the family celebrations remain special.
"It's like you've been treading water for so long and then finally the big boat or life raft comes along and you're in it," she said. "You're not treading water endlessly. You can take a deep breath and think about the future, with less fear."
The Novant Health pediatric cancer clinic in Charlotte is the only St. Jude Children's Research Hospital affiliate in the Carolinas. It is one of just three nationwide to take part in clinical trials with both St. Jude and the Children's Oncology Group. That means world-class care is available closer to home.