Sophia’s Story: How I’ve lived and loved through breast cancer
When Sophia Taylor was diagnosed with breast cancer, only in her 30s and a mum of two preschoolers, she decided to share her story to raise awareness of the disease. Pictured here at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, modeling clothes from her retro boutique Pocket Watch & Petticoats, she tells Velvet’s Alice Ryan: “The way I saw it, if my news encouraged just one person to get checked out then my job was done.”
Firstly: you've just completed your chemotherapy - a milestone moment. How did it feel to ring that bell?
Mixed emotions. . . Gratitude in abundance, of course, as well as happiness, but also worry and nerves. The nurses and chemo suite have been my ‘normal’ for the last six months; my comfort blanket whilst navigating my way through life. On the outside I’m cured, I’m well, I’m healthy; on the inside I still relive the early stages of diagnosis and try and process exactly what has happened.
It would be easy to share only positives on these pages, but I’m also aware, for anyone reading this that is on their own journey with this disease, that I should be totally transparent so they don’t feel alone. Being told you have cancer and processing that is the loneliest experience, so it’s important I keep it as real as possible and I hope in doing so it comforts anyone going through this process, as well as giving an insight to anyone who knows someone going through this and how they may be able to help.
We know you're keen to raise awareness of breast cancer and its symptoms, particularly among younger women - and that's partly why you've shared your journey with your social media followers. Tell us why you feel it's so important to spread the word and share your story?
I am so blessed that my stores and my team have created a family-type connection with our customers over the years. Because of this, the response I received when I shared my diagnosis was totally overwhelming in the most positive and loving way. Gosh, if words and intention were medicine, I’d have been cured within minutes of sharing my news. It gave me hope, encouragement and strength and it’s what’s seen me through the last six months.
A lot of people contacted me to say they had been putting off going to the doctor for something they were concerned about, others messaged and explained their own journeys and what could help me. The way I saw it, if my news encouraged just one person to get checked out then my job was done. I needed to feel I got this for a reason, so it was a way to justify to myself why I had it.
To rewind to the beginning of that story: please can you explain how your cancer was discovered?
My mum unfortunately has had breast cancer three times over the last 15 years; all the same breast so, although it isn’t a hereditary gene we have, I am very breast aware. I check myself in the shower every day as it’s easier to feel any changes or lumps whilst it’s wet and your fingers can glide across the skin. I left it for a month as I thought it may be due to my menstrual cycle, but when it was still there three weeks later I managed to get an appointment that day with my doctor.
She referred me for an emergency check up at the breast clinic at Ipswich hospital, which takes a maximum of two weeks. She reassured me that it felt like a cyst and I’m very young so try not to worry. I’m so incredibly grateful she still requested my appointment. Anyone reading this, if you feel you want a second opinion, make noise! Trust your gut and get to the bottom of anything that’s worrying you. It’s important to mention that a mammogram never picked up my tumour, only an ultrasound did, and even then the doctor was 50/50 as to what it was. So please, do your research, if you feel something still isn’t right, KEEP PUSHING!
Also, educate your children. The youngest person in my suite was 16! SIXTEEN! You’re only just having your first bra fitting at 16; there is no justice! Men can also get breast cancer, so don’t ignore any unusual signs whatever sex you are - you can find a self-check guide at the end of this article. And remember sunscreen, no matter the time of year. Implement small changes to be a part of your daily routine.
Nobody ever wants to hear those words. . . How did you begin to process the news?
After my biopsy was taken, I couldn’t feel the lump anymore so I convinced myself it was a cyst that had burst. I’d gone away for the New Year’s break with my young family and tried the best I could to keep focused I remember driving home and thinking how beautiful that sunset was: the colours, the sounds and smells around me, the minuscule details that I’d taken for granted suddenly were overtaking my senses at the thought of what the biopsy may have found.
When I was told, I just knelt on the floor at my doctor’s feet, holding her hands, and cried. My sister was with me and we were both numb. My first thoughts were of my two young children and that, of course, I’d do anything it took to make sure I got back to full health as soon as possible.
We are so incredibly lucky that we have the NHS in this country and that treatment is very far advanced now. From the date I went to that initial doctor's appointment saying I’d felt a lump to the date of my surgery for my mastectomy was five weeks. God bless the NHS, as well as everyone that works in our hospitals and GP surgeries.
We know your mum was diagnosed with cancer too, soon after you: an unimaginable shock. . . Can you tell us what happened and how she's doing?
Yes, unfortunately two days before my chemo was due to begin the doctors told us that mum had a brain tumour which had metastasized from her previous breast cancer and it looked inoperable. I wanted to postpone my treatment to spend as much time with her as possible, but my sisters and mum reminded me I have a family of my own now and had to carry on my course for them.
It was so hard to face the shock of us both having cancer; my mum is my best friend. As I sat in the chair to have my first chemo, we got a phonecall saying the surgeons were prepared to operate. This really was such amazing news and helped with that first treatment. Unfortunately, the cancer is now in her bones and she is very weak. We have been caring for her since her operation and are just praying that in time she can regain her strength to enjoy her days with us again.
You've got two little ones and a very busy business too. How have you managed to juggle life, work, treatment?
It has been difficult, I can’t sugarcoat it, that wouldn’t be fair on anyone reading this who is struggling. The guilt is overwhelming when I can hear my two young children, aged 2 and 4, laughing and playing while I’m unable to lift my head off the pillow. To get me through, I just keep telling myself it’s not forever. I have a truly amazing team flying the flag for Pocket Watch & Petticoats and our customers have been so incredibly supportive and loving. My sister Vikki has been my constant and my husband Adrian, who also works in the shops, has been my rock.
The photos here are beautiful! What is the message you'd like them to convey?
Hope. Courage. Determination. Strength. But yes, hope more than anything.
As positive a person as you are, you have been frank about the dark times you've been through on this journey; the wakeful early hours when the fear takes over. How have you dealt with that?
Social media is all smoke and mirrors: celebrities and acquaintances posting this idyllic lifestyle of perfection and unrealistic achievements. I’ve been honest when it comes to me posting my journey, the highs and lows, because THAT is normal, THAT really IS real life. And it’s important for people reading to know that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to say ‘I’m struggling’.
Cancer is the loneliest experience, even though I have had an army of warriors and goddesses supporting my every step. Your head will go to the darkest places when the nighttime visits. Social media became an outlet for me to share, to potentially inspire as well as create awareness of a disease that affects 1 in 2,500 over-25-year-olds and 1 in 15 over-60-year-olds. Cancer changes you, you are never the same again, but I hope through my posts I have injected some light into the rabbit holes of darkness.
As someone known for your clothes, hair and makeup - you've always lived and loved the Pocket Watch & Petticoats brand! - how have you held onto that part of your identity while going through your treatment?
I discovered this amazing independent business called Do The Twist (see @do_thetwist or dothetwist.co.uk). Amy creates the most wonderful creations to wear as a wired head wrap, so the structure and support can help them stay in place whilst making sure you look fabulous! It’s the perfect accessory to make sure you’re a ‘Cancer Catfish’ even if you’re feeling a bit ‘meh’ on the inside.
On my last day of treatment, I twirled my way through the chemo suite wearing three petticoats, heels and one of our swing dresses. It was a real talking point and made people smile; that was a nice feeling, spreading a bit of love and joy.
We know that you and your PW&P team have helped countless women feel beautiful again both during and following cancer treatment, haven't you?
Wearing the style of dresses we sell along with the accessories, you can’t help but feel fantastic. They’re timeless, elegant, flattering and feminine. I hadn’t realised just how many people we had helped on their own journey with cancer and other illnesses until I shared my diagnosis. The letters, cards and messages I’ve received explaining how my staff and our shops gave them confidence at a time when they were on their knees was truly humbling. To know we have created a safe space for ladies to come and ‘forget’ for a while is incredibly touching.
And finally, If there's someone reading this who's going through a similar experience - which, sadly, is highly likely, due to the prevalence of this disease - what would you say to them?
I’m sorry. My darling, I’m so incredibly sorry. There are no words to stop the deafening silence that bounces off the walls, no way to stop your mind from working overtime with nerves; no-one can take away the heaviness in your feet as you wade through the treacle each day or help you sleep as your brain won’t stop with the questions and worry. . .
All I can say is when you’re ready, remember to breathe, to focus, to take time each day to find something joyous. Listen to music, dance - even if it’s in your head. Ask for help and don’t feel guilty for doing so. Take one step at a time and be kind to yourself because you are wonderful, never EVER forget that.
Sophia would like to thank everyone at Ipswich Hospital, particularly within the Woolverston Wing and John Le Vay Centre, for not only the treatment she’s received, but also the many kindnesses.
If reading her story has inspired you to help a cancer support charity, she would encourage donations to Little Lifts, which gives care packages to chemo patients, and Little Princess Trust, which makes human hair wigs for children and teenagers going through treatment. Find out more at littlelifts.org.uk and littleprincesses.org.uk
Assistant Photographer & Retoucher: Katrin Vashkevich: katrinvashkevichphotography.com
Clothes & Accessories: Pocket Watch & Petticoats: 16 St John’s Street, Cambridge/10 St John’s Street, Bury St Edmunds/@pocketwatchpetticoats
Read moreReal Life Stories
More by this authorAlice Ryan