Writing coach Sarah Bullen and her children were on the verge of returning home to South Africa 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…
* This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Fair Lady Magazine. You can read the text of the article below or read it as a pdf at the bottom of this page.**
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 and ready and all that was left was a few days for cocktails, long walks and goodbyes. I had a beautiful man in my life who was coming months later 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 water 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 so 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 and bumped checked out immediately.
I felt the other one. No lump. Could I have imagined it?
No it was there.
I got dressed and put on a tight bra to strap my breasts up 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 feel for it, and I was scared to feel for it.
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 checks and ‘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 terrible thoughts. Or rather one 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 really 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 small village I walked down the hot summer streets and through the winding alleyways and this incredible feeling on KNOWING came over me. I knew this lump was cancer. 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 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 positive. I was sure she would tell me its nothing. It will 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 hand and I felt each of my sisters take one hand to hold me tight between. 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.
No it’s not a cyst.
Wait for the doctor please.
I can’t give you any more information right now.
She took two agonising samples with something like a staple gun.
The next day my mom came to hang with me, mainly to distract me from my own mind. I was waiting for the call. The call came as I walked onto the beach.
“Bad news I am afraid. As I suspected it’s malignant,” she said. “You need to see a surgeon about your options and the next steps. I think you should strongly consider a double mastectomy due to your family history. Your surgeon will discuss all this with you.”
It had been a week since that deliciously warm summer’s afternoon in Greece.
Cancer was not a new word for me. But it was one I had avoided for four years.
My husband died of brain cancer at age 42 in 2012 and my oldest sister from breast cancer in 2010. So cancer was an intimate word for me. It was the word I avoided the most.
I almost couldn't bear to hear it spoken of. I ran from it. I didn’t want to know and I wanted to keep it very far away from me. And now here it was, right on my own doorstep. But it wasn’t my laughing filmmaker of a husband with the diagnosis. I was no longer the support team - I was the patient. I was no longer the one who could walk away and leave it behind.
My first appointment for the breast surgeon was a long wait away. In between that I did a lot of reading, meditating, yoga. I did a lot of panicking, crying and worrying. I fasted then gave up. I went to every alternative practitioner I know researching my alternatives. I had endless cups of tea. Held hands with loved ones. Cried some more.
I told my children what was going on and what I knew. They too are intimate with the holes and empty spaces death leaves behind. This was never going to be an easy conversation, but it was a necessary one.
Fear was strangling me. But fear of what? It wasn’t death.
I am no stranger death. I have even personally tasted it. In 2012, the same month my husband died, I had a near death experience. Low and vulnerable from years of living with the slow demise of my guy, I caught pneumonia. I had a big job, was group editor of a stable of magazines and fit and healthy. Or so I thought. Within 48 hours I was in a coma and on life support. I remained in a coma for three weeks slowly slipping away. During that time my soul travelled and connected with other worlds and realms. This is a story I have written about before and I have documented my soul journey and out of body experiences.
So death wasn't the fear for me.
For ages after my coma and NDE people would ask me… what was the lesson you learned ‘from the other side’. The lesson seemed so simple I was embarrassed to share. I would pre-empt it with a…..’sounds silly but…”
So here is goes. The big profound lesson in three words.
Have more fun.
But did I live it?
Did these three words become my mantra?
As I healed and returned to normal, the connection with the divine I had found in my soul travels lessened. Normal life took over. Bills to pay, kids to feed, cars to service, pools to backwash, mugs to rinse, windows to wash.
I moved to Greece on a whim to find some quiet on a tiny island. But was I quiet? No. I was the same. I was a busy single mom wrapped up in the forward-movement of life.
My soul was crying for a change but I thought that changing countries was enough.
I was moving forward and fast and relentlessly until cancer hit. And it kept hitting.
Hours and hour in doctors’ rooms, CT scans, ultrasounds and finally an MRI of my liver. They found ‘two small spots’ on my liver. It wasn’t clear if they were cancerous or not, but it meant that the treatment plan changed. I started with chemo and was scheduled to do surgery later.
Waiting for results and doctors was an activity filled with fear and anxiety. Waiting for the appointment, waiting for the test, waiting for the result. And I was terrified. I could feel it vibrate in my body. I controlled it, disguised it, and managed it and if all else failed I medicated it.
But again the question came up… what are you afraid of? What was this terrible uncontrollable fear racing through my body? And when I sat really still I found it didn’t really have a place, or an outcome or a reason.
And I knew in that second that my enemy was the fear. Not cancer. Not death. Not loss. Not illness. My personal enemy was fear.
And yet I was stuck there in the ‘fear space’. It is a space my brain knows intimately. Sometimes I call it anxiety or panic or terror. Fear as an emotion is always available to me in various forms.
I have worked out ways and devices and systems over the years to manage it. Skirting close to death and encountering angels did not remove the quality of fear; they only removed a fear of dying.
And it was then; sitting in a sunlit waiting room in another hospital waiting for another result I made a startling choice. I will not be scared.
It was a light bulb moment.
It is one thing to think ‘I will not be afraid’ but how do you live it?
I already had a clue because for many years a mantra had been stuck in my head. It was probably from an Instagram post email or a floating conversation but the words were crystal clear. Three other simple ones. Love or Above. I had been watching this phrase from afar for a while. I had even written it above my desk.
But what did it mean? I turned to the modern spiritual guru – Google. And I found what I was looking for.
There it was in three simple steps:
1. It told me all emotions have a vibration that you feel in your body. Fear is on the lowest end of the scale.
2. In order to get rid of it you have to raise it to a higher vibration like love, gratitude, and joy
3. You raise it by crowding out fear-based thought and replacing them with better thoughts.
I needed a practical solution like this. I need things I can do. I can’t think my way out of fear; I need to act my way out of it.
Get rid of fear by replacing it with joy. Gotcha.
I wrote up a series of mantras
The thoughts were simple ones. They were based in joy and love.
I wrote them down and stuck them on my desk, car and phone as a reminder and tried to use them wherever possible.
‘I bless you and I love you’
‘I am so grateful and thankful for…”
‘I just love that you…
I listened to talks on love and gratitude. I downloaded meditations that planted positive thoughts in my mind.
I lay in the MRI machine for over an hour waiting for on my liver to be scanned and screened again. I pictured a scene sometime in the future in summer with my guy and the kids. We’re all in the sun by the pool with a big roast planned for lunch. I am in an electric blue bikini and looking great. I have finished my treatment and I am clear of cancer. The kids are laughing, music is floating across the air and life is good. The feeling infused my body. It lifted my soul and I started laughing. Just like that. Joy raced through me. Love, fun and silliness. There was no place for anxiety. And the hour just flew by.
Cancer has given me the gift of ending fear. It has ended fear as my default, go-to place.
In the next few months of chemo it was not always easy to feel the joy. Many times I fell back into fear or anxiety, loathing or despair. I felt disgusting, sick and shut down. I felt very sorry for myself. I felt so sorry for my family to have to go through this with me. I felt scared that I may not survive and I may leave my kids without any parents at all. I felt deeply the unfairness of it all. These were all easy to feel.
But I work had to crowd out those feelings. Every day. As soon as I notice these low vibration feelings rear their heads I go back basics. I print out my mantras and listen again to the meditation. I write the words on my hand lest I forget. I go back to that place in summer. I go back to that hot day with the roast in the oven and music floating on the air. I fill my body and mind with joy and there is no room left for the fear.
Fear is not really there for me any more. Sure there are times when the ‘what if it comes back’ thought crowds my head and drags me down. But putting that thought aside is a choice I make again and again.
Sarah Bullen is a book author and writing coach. She takes writers on a journey to write their own story. Find her at thewritingroom.co.za