Stéphane Bullion entered corps de ballet of the prestigious Opéra National de Paris at the age of 17 years old, all destined for a great career. Unfortunately, six years later, in 2003, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer at an advanced stage that put everything in question.
Thanks to his will to live and his inherent need to dance, Stéphane Bullion took his illness head on and fought tirelessly to return to the front of the stage.
His intense efforts, the presence of his companions and his fighting spirit were rewarded through his appointment as Danseur Etoile in 2010: a model of hope for all people affected by cancer.
Stéphane Bullion retraces his history and shares with you his experience.
At 23, while you continuously rehearsing and performing, how did you find out that you were suffering from cancer?
I started having health problems in October 2003 after adagio rehearsal during which my partner kicked me in the testicles. I first consulted with an urologist who treated me for inflammation. But in early December, the pain had worsened, and one evening I went to the ER. Two days later, I did blood test, scan, ultrasound, MRI… The announcement came on December 24. On January 9, one month after I did the surgery I went to the urologist again with the results of my biopsy. He then announced that I was not one of the lucky number. I left collapsed. A week later, I started chemo for a period of four months.. It was a treatment bleomycin, etoposide and cisplatin in cycles of three weeks.
I started my sessions very quickly in order to adjust my shows and continue to attend classes. At first, everything went pretty well for my first cycle. But very soon I realized that I could not go on like this, not only because of the fatigue due to chemo but also because of my surgery wound was healing, I could no longer do any jumps.
But overall, I still managed to keep a “fairly normal activity” in my work and in my personal life.
What side effects have you faced during all of your treatments? And what were the most difficult?
On my first round, my hair began to fall. I was amused at the beginning: I shaved my head by making holes, drawings, a peak … Later, when I started to lose my eyebrows and my eyelashes, it was more difficult. That was nevertheless the least unpleasant side effect because the rest was really difficult to live with.
I was really extremely tired and out of breath, I could not sleep, I lost all feeling in the hands and feet. I had no more feeling of the ground and for my work, it was very strange. I had to wait two years before the sensations come back completely.
I also lost my toenails a month after the end of my treatment. I was on tour in Japan that time. I was dancing intensely in my slippers. So I re-taped my nails before each performance as to make the steps not too painful.
I also had nausea, vomiting, intestinal problems, hyper dry skin, major pressure sores on the heels … The slightest effort, like opening a bottle of water, my skin did not cut but torn as if it burst out.
I could not eat because there were very few things that I endured and made me want. Smells bothered me very quickly. There was one thing I could eat: raw endive! I do not know why, but I still love it!
Towards the end of my treatment, I had so many problems with sores that I had to postpone my last cycle. I could not eat for eight days so I had mucositis. I had sores everywhere, swollen tongue, the palate was irritated. No treatment relieved me.
I believe that fatigue was the the most difficult side effect. To such an extent that at the end of treatment, I said “That’s good, they killed me. I will not be able get up”. For a while everything would cost me. I went from my bed to the bathroom on all fours so I was out of breath.
What made you well? How did you manage to ease these side effects?
I was given a long list of medication to counter the side effects such as cortisone or anti-emetics. I supplemented it with homeopathy and plants such as bamboo or radish. It helped me well for my liver problems because there were many things that I had to put up with. I continue to take it even today as I had been told that everything would recover but this is not the case with me, I still have weaknesses in the liver.
My mother also taught me the basics of relaxation and sophrology. It helped me a lot during the long days of chemo when I was so tired that I could not speak. To stay lying down for twelve hours without saying anything and moving, it gave the time to meditate.. Sophrology helped me try to accept my pain.
But more importantly, it allowed me to hold it around me. My family have always been there for me. For example, my mother often took a day off the day after my chemo to stay with me while I spent my day resting without even speaking. She was just present. We did not talk, but the fact that she is close to me changed everything. And then there was Pauline my wife, she was 20 and she faced it all in a way unheard of, she accompanied me, supported me. She made sure that we remain a normal couple, with her ‘Joie de vivre’, she has been essential and she still is.