Compassionate care inspires cancer patient to give back

Aug 17, 2016, 13:57 PM by KirstiAnn Clifford
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When Dr. Gwyn Richardson hears a bell ring at UTMB’s Cancer Center in Galveston or League City, it’s music to her ears.

“It’s a happy, happy sound,” said Richardson, a gynecologic oncologist and assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “It signifies the end of cancer treatment and has been a UTMB tradition for many years. Patients also ring a bell when they reach certain milestones, such as one-year or five-year anniversaries being cancer-free.”

Jody Domingue, a patient of Richardson’s, has experience ringing the bell. When she was 26, Domingue overcame stage 4 breast cancer after undergoing experimental chemotherapy. Now, 42 years later, she has rung the bell two more times at UTMB, following treatment for advanced-stage endometrial cancer.

She’s still fighting, but she’s still here. And for that, Domingue is grateful.

“I’ve been blessed to have beaten the odds with great physicians and prayers from family and friends in the past, so why can’t I do it again?” said Domingue, who travels from Orange to Galveston with her supportive husband, Butch, for cancer care. “And Dr. Richardson is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. She’s incredibly warm and personable, but also aggressive when it comes to making sure we kill every possible cancer cell. It’s a perfect combination.”

Reflecting on her journey and the relationships she’s built at UTMB, Domingue was inspired to give back. She met with Richardson to brainstorm ideas, and the “UTMB Victory Bell” necklace was born.

“When patients ring the bell, that’s usually it. You take a photo and go home,” said Domingue. “But I wanted the bell to ring always—loud and clear—for patients to remember their courageous fight.”

She found an artist online who made bell pendant necklaces from antique butter knives, complete with a fork tine clapper. Domingue liked the idea of the bell being made from a knife, which symbolizes “cutting cancer away.” She started raising funds to buy the necklaces in bulk so that all UTMB patients who finish their cancer treatment or reach a certain milestone can be given one.

Richardson said she loves working in gynecological oncology because of patients like Domingue. She’s been honored to help guide her as a patient, but also counts her as a friend.

Jody Domingue receives cancer care treatment at UTMB“I became a gynecologic oncologist because I appreciate caring for women at this unique time in their lives. Cancer is, necessarily, a scary word. I treasure the relationships that form over years with patients and their families,” said Richardson, pointing to a wall in her office brimming with pictures of her patients. “At UTMB, we offer a personalized approach while caring for cancer patients. We don’t always beat cancer but treatment becomes more about the journey for each person, and helping them set and meet their individual goals—whether it’s trying to get to a wedding at a certain time or being there when a grandchild arrives. Some of the women will send me pictures of themselves standing on different beaches around the world and say, ‘I’m here today—and that’s enough.’ That’s really the reaffirming part.”

Domingue has now raised enough money for 150 necklaces—enough to provide to all League City and Galveston Cancer Center patients for the next year. Each person will also receive a blessing adapted from a poem by Domingue’s mother, who was also a cancer survivor. Domingue wears her own necklace proudly every day, and hopes to ring the bell a fourth and final time later this year.

“When I finish treatment, I’m going to continue my efforts to provide victory bell necklaces to as many patients as I can,” she said. “Every time you hear the bell ring close to your heart, it’s like someone is saying a prayer for you and you aren’t alone. That means a lot.”