Sarah Bullen and her children were on the verge of returning home to SA to start another exciting chapter in their life after a wonderful two-year sojourn on a Greek island. Then she felt a lump in her left breast. This is her story…
‘My enemy was the fear itself – not cancer.’ Cancer survivor Sarah Bullen’s life-changing journey
Summer in Greece is so hot that even your breath sticks to your skin as it leaves your lips. It was the lazy height of summer and the air was buzzing with possibilities. Everything was good. I had been living on a tiny Greek island for two and a half years and was packing to return home. My kids were ready for high school and we were ready to let go of the island life and join the ‘real world’.
My mother and sister had just been to visit. The house was packed up and all that was left were a few days for cocktails, long walks and goodbyes. I had a beautiful man in my life who was coming to join the kids and me in our new home in Cape Town. I had a tan and an electric blue bikini and I was going to dine out on ouzo and sardines before I left.
I was standing naked in my room after a cold shower, letting the hot breeze dry the droplets on my body and bring down the summer heat. I started to feel my breasts. Standing in front of the mirror, I palmed them, felt their weight in my hands and then let my fingers feel more closely. No real reason, just a sudden hunch.
My fingers went straight to a lump on the left one. It was my smaller breast; the one I don’t love as much as the fuller right breast. The lump was hiding, just there, and it felt soft, but solid. My heart started thumping. Primal fear was coursing through me. Cancer. The word raced through my blood. I dropped my hand, terrified to even touch that small, soft thing.
My rational mind told me to calm down. It is probably nothing, I told myself. But a lump is never nothing. I get every small lump or bump checked out immediately.
I felt the other breast. No lump. Could I have imagined it?
No. It was there.
My kids were ready for high school and we were ready to let go of the island life and join the ‘real world’.
I got dressed and put on a tight bra to strap up my breasts to hide them away. But all afternoon that lump was on my mind. I had to sit on my hands to stop myself feeling for it. I wanted to, and was afraid to.
Later that day I googled lumps and found out a whole load to put my mind at ease. I spent hours combing through information. Good news. Most lumps are benign. There were lots of ‘how do you knows’. Mine felt soft and it moved – didn’t it? That was better than hard and fixed, apparently. But still my monkey mind played with one terrible thought. Cancer.
I had a week to wait before I got home and I told myself to stay calm and get it checked out then. My farewell week was supposed to be a round of parties, but I was just waiting. Nothing else mattered. I chatted, packed, laughed, drank wine, cried a bit when I said goodbye. But all the time my mind was really trained and focused on one thing. The lump.
I called my mom before I left and told her I had found a lump and to make me an appointment with the obstetrician for the day I returned. I also made one with my GP.
‘Oh, don’t worry, I have had so many of those lumps. I have lumpy breasts. It’s nothing,’ she said. I held tight onto that.
The day before I left the village I walked down the hot summer streets and through the winding alleyways, and this feeling of knowing came over me. I KNEW this lump was cancerous. I knew the one thing I was most afraid of was actually happening.
And I knew I would be okay. I remember the very moment the feeling descended on me. It flushed me from above like a gift from the heavens. It came as a voice so clear and so loud. You will be okay, it said.
My small family of three landed in Cape Town. I made small talk and smiled, but inside I was twisted into knots of worry. The next day I went to my GP feeling fairly confident. I had talked myself into a positive frame of mind. I was sure she would tell me it was nothing. It would be over soon. But she didn’t. In fact, she looked concerned. Her eyes were soft with sorry.
‘You need a mammogram urgently,’ she said. Could it be a cyst? I asked. She shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, it doesn’t feel like one.’ The mammogram was on Monday, and before I walked into the consulting room to have my breasts squeezed between the cold plates, I prayed deep and hard. I put out my hands and I felt each of my sisters take one to hold. I was aiming for calm but all of my hard-won tools to manage my fear were failing me. Inside I was freaking out.
‘Yes, there it is.’
‘We need to biopsy it.’
This pic: The island of Lesbos is famous for being the home of Sappho, a female poet and lyricist reportedly called ‘The Tenth Muse’ by Plato.
Far left: July this year, and Sarah was back in Greece running a memoir writing retreat. Left: Island life meant home-schooling the kids and day trips to dive off the cliff into the Aegean. Below right: July 2016, on the day Sarah (front in blue) found the lump.
This pic: Lesbos is unaffected by mass tourism. It is a summer tradition to swim to the rock every day – 400m each way!