At 32 years old, Sylvia Soo has repeatedly demonstrated that she is an inspirational force to be reckoned with. A two time cancer survivor, business owner, author, and educator, she is proof of how far you can go when your strength comes from within. Since starting her journey, she has published a book (The Cancer Fabulous Diaries), been featured in two documentaries and a short film, and Sylvia Soo Leather —her line of handcrafted one-of-a-kind leather journals and accessories— has grown from therapeutic hobby into a full time career.
We had the pleasure of visiting Sylvia in her studio to learn more about her story —thank you for taking the time to share with us, Sylvia!
You were 25 when you were first diagnosed with breast cancer —what was that like? Would you mind describing this life-altering experience?
I was only twenty-five and had no clue about anything really. I was still forming my identity and discovering who I was. I look back at it all and I think “what a crazy ride.”
It may be impossible for me to condense six years of experience into a couple paragraphs. Having to deal with cancer really taught me to live day to day. It also taught me that life is always changing. We must accept change. Being in my mid-twenties and losing the physical things that our society deems “beautiful’ was hard.
Cancer took a lot away from me, but it also allowed many wonderful things to come into my life. When I look back at everything I have gone through – the whole experience seems surreal. I lost all my hair? I gave myself needles when I was too sick I could hardly sit up? I can’t remember how many surgeries I’ve had? I got through it – one step at a time. I invite everyone to read my book Cancer Fabulous Diaries and visit my blog Cancer Fabulous.
How was your first cancer experience different from the second experience when you learned that the cancer had returned?
I believe I am more spiritual and grounded. I also have a different relationship with my body and my inner being. I took more time for me the second time around. I went inward. I had to come to terms with who I was. Rather than change who I was, I had to learn to accept who I was – I still am. That can be difficult.
Rather than change who I was, I had to learn to accept who I was – I still am.
What was the most gripping realization during this whole experience that was something you really had to come to terms with?
That I may die from cancer. It’s a really big reality whether I want to accept it or not. I don’t really like to say it because people close to me would get upset, and I don’t really like to think about it because it makes me feel sad. But I am happy to be here right now. I am not scared about death – it is a natural part of the circle of life. I’m just sad that I may be taken away at an earlier age than some.
I am not scared about death – it is a natural part of the circle of life.
Can you describe a moment that you would consider to be the most challenging?
There were many challenging moments. Perhaps one of my most challenging periods was my experience with radiation. It took me a long time to decide to even go through with it. Upon completion of twenty-five rounds, I was supposed to go for five additional rounds of targeted radiation. I remember trying to hold a posture as they tried to line my body up with the machine. My arms were over my head and it was stretching my raw, blistered skin. I was in an incredible amount of pain and turmoil that tears began to fall from my eyes. That is when we decided to take a break from radiation. My radiation oncologist did not want the open wounds to turn into ulcers. I healed up and in the spring of the next year, I had another reconstructive surgery. After that surgery, I struggled to get back to feeling completely like me again. It really sunk in that I had to accept a new normal. Actually, throughout the whole cancer experience I was learning to accept a new normal. However, having cancer and then having it again less than five years later was hard. The radiation really did a number on me. I never felt the same again after it.
What helped you the most to overcome that moment?
At the time, I was dating someone who was very kind and gentle. He introduced a lot of love and newness into my life. He gave me a lot of advice on super foods and he helped me to re-connect with my art. I think that really helped me.
Do you have any words of advice for young adults going through similar life experiences?
I meet many people who say, “Wow I could never have gone through what you have gone through.” And I tell them, “Your experience is no less than mine. Your experience is as real as mine.” The take away is that when you are going through crisis, it will show you what you are capable of. I think we are conditioned as children to always be happy, or if something goes wrong it is not okay. However, life is not one big happy. It is a huge ball of emotions that crash and collide into each other.
“Your experience is no less than mine. Your experience is as real as mine.”
Remember to breathe and check in with yourself from time to time. Surround yourself with good people who will listen when you are sad and rejoice with you when you are happy. It is okay to feel sad, and it is okay to feel happy. It is okay to be human.
It is okay to feel sad, and it is okay to feel happy. It is okay to be human.
Be ready to sacrifice – your time, your money, and your sleep.
Your business evolved from a leather journal-making course that you enrolled in three times…
The class pretty much became an obsession – very much like everything that I love. I couldn’t get enough. I made my very first hand-bound journal for the guy I was dating at the time. It was a present for Christmas. When I finally gave it to him, he said, “I was beginning to wonder if you had a crush on your teacher. You kept telling me how much you love your class and how much you love Jimmy, but you never came home with anything that you actually made.” My teacher, Jimmy was awesome – he was really patient. With a mind like mine I couldn’t just stick with making a journal. I quickly became curious about other processes.
Can you tell us more about what made that class so therapeutic?
The idea of sitting in a group and sharing “my feelings” is not really appealing to me. That is the concept that I think of when I think of breast cancer groups. The healing properties of art therapy are much more subtle, but quite profound. I believe our greatest answers lie within ourselves – we just have to open the conversation.
I believe our greatest answers lie within ourselves – we just have to open the conversation.
Art does that for us. In our class no one really spoke. Everyone was focused on his or her task. There were no kumbayas, no “oh we’re all here because we had cancer” – we just worked with our hands. The experience was very tactile and kinesthetic. I was able to escape my physically turmoil (that my skin was sliding off from second degree radiation burns) and just “be”.
How has your past experience as a model and artist influenced your current creative approach?
Having been in front of the camera I am sensitive to what translates into a good picture. I know how many people it takes to run a shoot. I don’t have the resources to execute such an outcome, but I try my best and I always have a clear picture of how I want something to look.
As a writer I am fascinated with words and stories. Having played a large role in editing the book that I wrote, and having been published in several major publications, I feel confident writing my own copy. I also want to give everyone an opportunity to share his or her own story. I believe that everyone has one. I am very honoured to hear what value these journals bring to many of my customers.
Are these still hobbies that you actively enjoy?
Art will always be a part of my life. I’m not sure about modelling. For now, I enjoy being behind the camera.
A few of your goods from your line Sylvia Soo Leather are retailing at Habitat Etc and Little Brick —at what moment did you realize that making leather goods had become more than just a hobby for you?
When I realized that people liked my goods, valued my goods and were willing to pay for them. Now that I work full time in my studio it cannot just be a hobby.
What sources do you draw inspiration from when you’re creating your products?
I am attracted to clean lines and minimalism. I like a classic look with little distraction. I am currently interested in incorporating the triangle into my designs. It is simple and strong. You can see it in my classic envelope clutches and on many of my flaps.
Where do you see Sylvia Soo Leather in 10 years?
I see Sylvia Soo Leather being carried in major cities across North America. I toy with the idea of opening a small, niche conceptual storefront that would incorporate art, design and fashion. The future is scary and exciting at the same time. I’m happy taking it one step at a time.
You have faced immense obstacles, and managed to not only overcome them, but to channel that ass-kicking momentum into several amazing projects: your blog Cancer Fabulous, The Scar Project, two documentaries (“Baring it All” and “I Don’t Have Time for This”, HOPE (Helping Others Prosper through English), a book AND a short film…
Where does that incredible level of empowerment come from?
I have a strong ability to adapt. A crisis to me is about taking action rather than falling apart. When I look back at my life I catch glimpses of where that mindset may have come from. I had a strong religious upbringing in which I was told my purpose in life was to help other people. I had good experiences, but the church also placed many restrictions on me. It introduced a lot of fear into my life. As a child, I took every sermon literally and spent a lot of time feeling scared. I left religion when I was in my late teens. When I was in my late twenties (shortly after my cancer reoccurrence) I remember sitting in my car with my mother. I was upset and angry. I had been wrestling with my inability to make peace with parts of my childhood. I wanted my mother to admit that the religion that I was raised in had caused a lot of trauma in my life. I wanted to feel validated. I was upset that I had never been allowed to do most things my peers had been allowed to do. She was insistent that her decision was the right one. I was so exasperated and upset. I just needed her to admit to me that she had made a wrong decision. Close to tears, I said, “Mom I don’t think you realize how much trauma I have from my childhood.” My mom looked at me and said very quietly, “Sylvia, I did the best that I could do for you at that time. I knew that you would be okay.” And at that moment I realized that my mother had raised me knowing that she did try her very best. And she had every confidence that whatever situation I was placed in, whatever curve ball life threw in my path, I had the ability to thrive. When I felt like I was falling apart, when I felt that I needed to come to terms with my past she knew that I had everything I needed within me. My mother raised me to be empowered.
My mother raised me to be empowered.
My mother immigrated to Canada in her early twenties, raised four children, worked a regular job and somehow managed to volunteer her time in the community. I watched my mother power through many hardships while I was growing up. I never once in my life heard her complain about her life or feel sorry for herself. She made the best of what she had and used the resources that were available to her, never accepting charity. She is an incredibly strong and remarkable woman who has more energy than I do. And now, I too am a strong and capable woman. Knowing that she believes in me and that she doesn’t have to worry about me was actualized that day in the car.
You had mentioned that the Callanish Retreat was a life changing experience that changed your life. Can you tell us a bit more about the retreat and the impact that it had on your life?
Around the time I learned about the Callanish Society my spirit was crying out for something. Callanish was exactly what it needed. I cannot even express how amazing this group is. To do it justice, you would have to experience it for yourself. I spent six nights in the most amazing setting with the most incredible group of facilitators. I was offered so much – sound therapy, massage, art therapy, counseling, body centeredness and nutritious organic food. Each day a group of eight cancer patients and survivors from all stages and ages, shared together, cried together, laughed together, and healed together. It was hard, emotional work. I got though it. It changed my life. An experience like that never leaves you.
Your experience, drive and determination has lead to the formation of Cancer Fabulous, can tell us more about it?
Cancer fabulous embodies the human spirit. You can be going through incredible hardship, pain, and suffering and you can still be fabulous. It is about resiliency. It is about strength.
It is about resiliency. It is about strength.
Through the ReThink Breast Cancer organization, you’ve published “Cancer Fabulous Diaries” a book that shares your story, as well as the stories of other women from across North America. Can you tell us a little about how you initially became involved with the organization?
I was a desperate 25 year old freshly diagnosed with cancer not wanting to mope around and not fitting in with the breast cancer crowd. I found Rethink Breast Cancer online and contacted them. It’s been a six year relationship. We have done collaborations, I have modeled for them, they awarded me a writing grant, and I even worked for them for a short period of time.
How did the Cancer Fabulous Diaries project first come about?
I hope I can recall the events properly as it was a while ago. I had been journaling my experience with cancer, there was a publisher who was interested in a concept for a book that I had. I had also mentioned the book concept to MJ, the executive director of Rethink to see if they could get involved somehow. She was really excited about what I was doing. In the end, I did not sign the contract with the publisher. I was awarded a grant to work full time on my book and produce a book/zine that would incorporate interviews with other breast cancer survivors. I put a lot of heart and soul into that book. Everyone who worked on it did.
What was the most memorable moment or encounter you experienced while writing the book?
I had the privilege of interviewing twenty-eight incredible women throughout North America and Asia. A handful of those interviews were chosen for my book. The stories that these women shared blew me away. These women really embodied what cancer fabulous was about. I also had the chance to work with some amazing photographers and make-up artists. I had a lot of fun.
We hear you were involved with an Emmy award winning documentary named “Baring It All”. What were your initial thoughts about the project?
I’m not going to lie, the SCAR project is shocking. I was shocked when I saw it for the first time. It’s really raw; a stark contrast to pink ribbons. The SCAR project is about the people that live with the disease, people who may never see a cure from all the fundraising dollars. It is about strong, resilient women who are not afraid to look straight into the lens and bare their scars.I knew the SCAR Project was great and I wanted to be a part of it. I did not know that it would be as great as it is now.
What it was like to be part of the filming experience?
I loved it. It was the first time I had been to New York, so it was all very exciting. Even though I flew to NY between cycles of chemo I was on a high. I had a great time on that trip.
What was your reaction to seeing the completed film for the first time?
It’s always difficult seeing myself on film. I’m quite critical of myself. The first time I saw the completed film was at a screening in Houston, Texas – long after it had been released. I was sitting with Vanessa (another subject) and her husband Billy. By that time, Vanessa’s cancer had metastasized (to her brain). It was emotional watching the film knowing this. My friend’s know me to always be cracking jokes. Sometimes I’m not serious enough. I think I was the comedic relief in the film. The film would reach a really intense point and then there I would be – being stupid or trying to make everyone laugh. And as always, I am in awe of what I went through. As I said, it was a surreal experience.
What advice do you have for our readers who are looking to start their own business, but might be afraid to take the leap?
If you want to start your own business make sure you have a deep passion for what you are creating/doing because you will be putting in a lot more hours and sacrifice than a normal nine to five job. That passion needs to be strong; it will be the fuel that keeps you going even when you begin to question your decision. Be ready to sacrifice – your time, your money, and your sleep.
You will have to learn how to say no to things that you want to do, because you may have to work when your friends are having fun.
Make sure you love to learn. Learning never stops. Don’t be afraid to start something because you don’t know all the aspects of the business. Don’t let fear hold you back. You will fail again and again. Learn to fail better.
Learn to fail better.
Be patient with yourself. You can never be one hundred percent sure of a decision, you just have to take a leap of faith and believe that everything will be okay.
Finally, do not forget about balance. The hustle never stops and there will always be an endless list of things to do. In fact, the list always seems to get longer. Remember to nourish yourself as much as you nourish your business.
If there was one thing you could bring to Edmonton from your travels around the world what would it be?
It is hard to list one, so I will list three:
I wish we had jim-jal-bangs. When I worked in Korea they had these great “bath houses”. At the time I didn’t think they were great, but I slowly came to like them. The jim-jal-bang is a great concept: multi-level floors with beautiful saunas and wading pools of varying temperatures. At one jim-jal-bang, there was a room that was shaped like an igloo and constructed with brick. When I went inside it was so hot I felt like I was a gingerbread man cooking in an oven. I remember the smell of cedar – it was fantastic. Another room was an “ice room” where everything including the walls, were covered in ice. Another room had beautiful white rocks all over the ground. It was such a fun experience. Families and friends go there in groups to relax and spend time together. You just laze around and relax for hours – eat, sleep, get a massage… repeat.
It would also be nice if Edmonton had a licensed infinity pool that was open to the public – something similar to the Okura Prestige in Bangkok.
I know there’s a lot of land in Canada, probably one of the reasons why we build outwards versus upwards. However, it would be really nice to have a nice classy lounge that overlooks the city. I went to a really nice one in the Hyatt in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area.
What does first 60 minutes of your “perfect day” look like? What do you do as part of your daily routine? what would you like to do to start your ideal morning?
My perfect day: a short guided meditation (10 minutes preferred), a cup of tea (green tea or market spice), reflection, organic juice (cold pressed with my green star juicer), a game plan and a lot of mojo.
If you had to pick a favourite place in Edmonton to take a breather, let loose, or to soak up the city, where would it be? And why?
There’s a spot in the river valley that is really special to me. When I was undergoing radiation treatment for cancer, I would go there to skip. I spent a lot of time there reflecting about being in Edmonton. At the time, I had spent the last five years traveling extensively and I really did not want to be here. Being in Edmonton has been grounding for me.
Being in Edmonton has been grounding for me.
It has taught me how to be content and that I can find beauty wherever I may be. I just had to open my eyes and my heart.
If an out-of-towner came to Edmonton and asked you for a restaurant recommendation, where would you tell them to go?
Are you ready for a foodie answer? I would recommend breakfast at Under the High Wheel (menu suggestion: sweet belgium waffle or the vegan crepe), coffee at Little Brick (there are a lot of great coffee shops in Edmonton, but Little Brick is just too cute to miss), lunch at Noorish Cafe (menu suggestion: the Bodhi tree burger or Satva bowl), dinner at Sofra Wine Cellar (I ate there twice and loved it), and then Bar Bricco or Bibo Wine Bar for a night cap.
During our photo shoot we talked a bit about your daily wind down ritual. Can you tell us more about what you do to relax and finish off your day?
I try to take a bath with Epsom salts and peppermint oil. Then I light beeswax candles and listen to relaxing music – a delta sleep meditation search on YouTube usually finds me a playlist. The wind down ritual is a must because my mind is always going so fast and I need to come down from the day. It helps to slow things down for me.
What book has inspired, influenced, or helped you in your life that you would recommend to our readers and why?
A few years back a friend lent me a copy of Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I was so impressed with Frankl – he went through so much hardship with an incredible amount of grace, wisdom and understanding. He is remarkable.
So, what’s next for Sylvia? Do you have any new projects or endeavours in the works that you’re currently excited about?
October is a busy month for me. I am often booked for speaking engagements and activities surrounding breast cancer awareness month. I would like to expand in the area of inspirational speaking year round.
I am also excited about future projects with Sylvia Soo Leather. I am collaborating with a couple artists at the moment, and am excited about future potential collaborations.
If you had to leave one sentence or a personal mantra for our audience, what would it be?
“I am beautiful. I am worthy to love and be loved. I am not perfect, but I am perfectly me. I will give to the world no less than what I am capable of giving and no more than what I am not willing to lose. I am in charge of my destiny and the universe is ready to give me what I ask.”