MY STORY

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…

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Sarah Bullen

‘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.

Mam­mo­gram

Ul­tra­sound.

‘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!

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