When Sonia Bhandal was eight years old, her parents delivered some devastating news to the family.
She was too young to understand exactly what was going on, but while her older sisters, 14 and 18 at the time, sobbed around her, she knew it was serious.
Sonia’s mum, Gucharan, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I knew it was something bad, but I’d not really been educated about cancer because I was just a child,” Sonia, now 33, told The Mirror.
“After that, it was all quite overwhelming as so much was unknown. But as I saw my mum going through treatment and being sick from chemo, it became clearer.”
Her devoted dad’s busy shift work to keep the family afloat meant she and her sisters often took care of Gucharan at home.
“She started to recover and her hair began to grow back, but then it came back. Over the next six years she found a lump in her neck and it spread to her bones,” Sonia explained.
Tragically, when Sonia was 14, her mum passed away at just 48 years old. Six months later, her auntie, who had been like a second mum, also died from cancer.
Sonia says the impact of losing two mother figures at such a crucial age was huge, and her studies suffered as a result.
But she motivated herself to get a degree, and after a short time in retail, she began working for Princess Alice Hospice in Esher, Surrey.
Sonia said: “I missed my mum so much and I always craved that connection with her.
“She had night nurses from Macmillan when she was ill, and I felt really drawn to the job in a hospice. It’s such a rewarding job and it made me feel close to my mum,” she said.
Despite losing her mum and her auntie to cancer, Sonia admits it never really crossed her mind to check her breasts as she got older.
“It was weird because I knew I would possibly get cancer, but at the same time, I never really thought about checking,” she said.
Settling into her job and in a new relationship, Sonia, then 28, took a trip across the pond to visit her boyfriend, who was working in New York for a few months.
One night, while half asleep, she rolled over in her sleep and her arm brushed against the side of her breast. Immediately, she noticed something strange.
“My breast felt tender as I touched it. It was like there was a stone in there.
“I remember my mum telling me if I ever felt anything like a hard lump, I had to get it checked,” Sonia said.
As her mum’s warning rang in her ears, Sonia recalls bursting into tears at 4am while her boyfriend tried to comfort her.
When she flew home, she went to see her GP about the lump. She was told it was probably hormonal and would most likely shrink – but asked her to come back in a few months’ time if it hadn’t.
“By then, I thought it must be ok and convinced myself it was fine. But it was still there two months later,” she said.
“I was sent for a biopsy and a week later, they told me it was cancerous.”
Later scans revealed Sonia had one lump in her breast that was 2cm in diameter. But it was grade 3 cancer, meaning it was growing rapidly.
“I just thought back to everything my mum went through and cried. I was thinking ‘I’m going to die’,” she said.
While she was terrified for her own health, Sonia recalls her family’s heartbreak at her diagnosis 14 years after losing Gucharan.
“When I first told my dad he was in a bit of denial. He said ‘we’ll get through this’. But one night when I was asleep, he came into my room in the middle of the night and he was just bawling,” she said.
Sonie hoped she’d only need to have a lumpectomy and then her treatment would be over. But doctors also told her she’d need gruelling chemotherapy – and tests for the BRCA-2 gene.
If a person carries the gene, they’re at greater risk of developing some cancers.
When tests revealed Sonia did carry the gene, which she’d inherited from her mum, she was given a difficult decision.
“They told me if I only had the lumpectomy, there was a 90% chance of my cancer coming back. My other option was a bilateral mastectomy.
“In some ways it was a no brainer, because I knew I couldn’t go through chemo again. But it was the toughest decision I’ve ever made in my life, because I was losing what I’d always looked like.
“I just thought about how it would feel to hear the words ‘your cancer has come back’ and agreed to the mastectomy,” Sonia explained.
The operation involves removing the breasts and using stomach fat to reconstruct them, before nipples are added on later.
But things didn’t go smoothly for Sonia, who ended up in hospital for six and a half weeks due to complications.
She developed pneumonia and was unable to walk or talk due to infections where her stomach wouldn’t heal.
Sonia said: “I think I was so weak from the chemo that my body couldn’t recover. My family didn’t know if I’d make it out of hospital alive.
“My abdominal wall collapsed and I had to have it reconstructed.”
Finally, Sonia was discharged from hospital, healing from the infection and cancer-free. But mentally, she was far from OK.
She still had no hair after chemotherapy, had lost weight and could barely stand up straight. To make matters worse, her relationship broke down.
“Because of the timing of the break up, I had to wonder if it was because of the way I looked. It took an enormous toll on my mental health,” she said.
Brave Sonia sought therapy to cope with the ordeal she’d been through, and believes more should be done to support people who have gone through cancer treatment in the UK.
“I feel like I’m still going through it all because I have the BRCA 2 gene. I’m always thinking the cancer is going to come back, and I have to deal with a lot of health anxiety. It’s draining,” she said.
She also described waking up in the middle of the night and feeling like she could hear hospital machines, in terrifying flashbacks.
While trying to connect with other people who had been diagnosed with cancer, Sonia found out about the Alike app, which provides a forum for people going through cancer treatment.
The app allows people to chat in groups or more privately about their experiences. It also gives them an outlet to write about what happened to them.
“It’s nice to hear other people’s experiences,” Sonia said. “Some people will say they’re on a certain medication and they’ve had a weird side effect, but then other people will assure them that it’s normal.
“I wish I’d known about it when I was actually having my treatment. It would have helped to know I wasn’t alone.”
Five years on from her diagnosis, Sonia is speaking out to encourage women to check their breasts regularly and understand their own bodies.
“Know what your ‘normal’ is, and if anything seems off, get it checked,” she urged.
She also wants others to know they’re not alone when going through cancer treatment – and there are plenty of places they can look for support.
“It could be an app like Alike, or one-on-one therapy. It could even be a group on Instagram,” she said.
After going through an incredibly traumatic experience, Sonia says she’s learned to appreciate her amazing body.
“I never loved myself before I was diagnosed. But while I was going through cancer I realised I’d been identifying with all the wrong things.
“I lost my hair, my eyelashes and the glow on my skin. But that isn’t what makes me ‘Me’.
“I’m the laughter I bring to a painful situation. I’m my empathy, my drive and my ambition. I’ve learned how to love myself.”