A 16-year-old Brit School student has spoken of her determination to continue working in the performing arts, despite a brain tumour that has left her unable to walk unaided.
Sophia Keaveney, a former winner of The Stage Scholarships who appeared in the West End production of Matilda as Hortensia, was operated on five months ago for an aggressive brain tumour, which required her to undergo surgery three times.
The operation meant she was hospitalised for three-and-a-half months and now cannot be left alone because she is unable to walk or carry out tasks without assistance.
But Sophia, who won a scholarship from The Stage in 2014 to attend Italia Conti, said she was determined to fight it and to succeed as a performer.
“At first I thought I would lose my love for performing arts, but I haven’t at all, and it’s come back stronger,” she told The Stage.
She added: “I have this determination that is pushing me harder, and I am now more determined to become a performer and to show the world my story and my struggles and what I am doing.”
Sophia left Italia Conti two years ago to join the Brit School.
Earlier this year, in the run-up to her GCSEs, she started to suffer headaches.
“I thought it was the norm – something everyone gets when they feel the stress of GCSEs. I was getting really bad migraines but thought I was just tired from the stress,” she said, adding that she took painkillers as a result.
Sophia even smuggled the painkillers into her exams in her pencil case because the pain was so bad.
However, an MRI scan taken three days before her final exam revealed she was suffering from a tumour. She was rushed from Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich in an ambulance to King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, south London, for immediate surgery.
She ended up having three operations over 24 hours.
“After the operations, I lost all my coordination on my left side and all the strength in my legs,” she explained. Her balance has also been impacted, which she described as “the worst thing”.
Despite the trauma of the past six months, she said she was determined to recover and to pursue her passion for dance and performing.
“The doctors are hoping my nerve endings will grow back. My doctor said it was good I have a young brain, what he calls ‘a dancer’s brain’. It’s used to learning new things and pushing itself and making new muscles,” she said, adding: “It’s good I was a dancer before this so I can learn to walk again.”
Sophia is currently unable to walk unaided, but said after the operation she had initially been unable to move her neck.
“Now I can move my neck and I can move around with a walker, which is a big thing,” she said.
Even though Sophia was unable to complete her final exam, she achieved excellent results in her GCSEs, including four double distinctions in her music BTEC and A grades in English and Maths.
She began post-16 studies at the Brit School in September and said the organisation had been supporting her by providing lessons over FaceTime and emailing powerpoint lessons. She is able to complete coursework at home and this month was able to visit classmates for the first time.
“That was the first time I was able to go back to school to see my friends, so it was a big deal for me,” she said.
As well as wanting to tour arenas as a singer and dancer, Sophia also has a dream to play Eliza in Hamilton in the West End.
She has never seen the show live, but said she had planned to before the tumour.
Sophia’s father, Patrick, told The Stage that her drive was strong, despite what she has been through.
He revealed how Sophia celebrated her 16th birthday while in hospital, and described that as a “really tough time”.
“We wanted to make a big deal of it, and to get the close family together. We got her a cake, but she slept throughout the whole thing. We woke her up to give her a taste of the cake, but she didn’t want it as it made her nauseous, and then went back to sleep. That was her 16th birthday and it was a really tough time,” he said.
Patrick added that everyone was working towards her full recovery, beginning with learning to walk again.
“The discipline of being a dancer will see her through,” he said.