You are a Marvel

Prof Carol-Ann Benn highlights how every woman who suffers a blast of cancer has a superhero inside of her – Captain Marvel (lous).


Captain Marvel – a female superhero. Her start in life is that she is a woman, talented and unique just like you. She never expected to become different, to leave her family and friends to transform into the most powerful superhero in the universe.

Why do I like the Captain Marvel movie? A normal lady. A disaster, such as a breast cancer, a blast of some hectic stuff, and suddenly your life is different.

The blast and transformation

The blast involves not just the diagnosis but treatment. Be it surgery alone; chemotherapy; radiation; target therapy or long-term endocrine therapy. There is no way your body and mind goes through treatments and is still the same as before. 

But different isn’t necessarily worse. Different is different. In the famous words of Milne (Winnie the Pooh), “The things that make me different are the things that make me, me.” 

It’s important to understand that an event doesn’t affect everyone similarly: physically, mentally, and emotionally, nor at the same time or with equal intensity. Your baseline physical, mental and emotional space and your previous life dents makes you approach each obstacle differently.

It doesn’t make you a lesser superhero if you manage the blast and transformation differently from that other superhero lass, Wonder Woman. You just need your own time to find your superpower and deal with the blast of medical treatment in your own way.

The superhero code

Every superhero must follow a code and every origin story is different. Here are the rules: You are your own hero – don’t translate your own blast journey onto a fellow superhero. This means that your blast is different from hers. Your treatment and response to treatment shouldn’t be gauged in the same light. 

Let’s look at another Marvel hero. The Black Widow doesn’t go through a blast like Captain Marvel, but rather has a torturous upbringing. Their transformations into heroism are completely different but that is what makes each of them powerful.

The code, put quite simply, is: Don’t compare. Don’t judge.

Don’t expect the same response to the blast. Be mindful of others’ blasts. Your past and future journey will be individual. The experience may be different, but you are all heroes nonetheless. 

The old you

I know we all think we have the plan. But, we don’t. COVID -19 has proved this: make your plans but know life results in us needing to change our plans.

Acknowledge who you were; where you were in your life and what your strengths and weaknesses were when you were diagnosed. Did you have weaknesses then? Yes, you did. Look at your strengths, both the old ones and new ones you’ve gained, and use them to overcome your weaknesses. 

So, what was the best of your old self? What did you like? Your body (hair, shape, breasts, sexuality)? Maybe your abilities (to work, to do the job you trained for)? Your creativity (those aspects of you that fed your soul)? Or your mind (your memory, your mental functionality)?

List what you liked; list what you don’t like now. Can some of it be changed or not? Are you being realistic in what you think you can change? Realistically, I can’t be a singer or a dancer (not supple enough and am tone deaf) but I can learn to play the piano. 

Do you dislike that your breast was removed without any counselling around the options of breast-saving? The fact that many lymph nodes were removed that didn’t need to be, leaving you with pain? That you did have breast-saving surgery and now have dissimilar size breasts? The fact that your breasts are not breasts but fake, cold and lopsided-prosthetic things? Can this be fixed realistically or not? 

Accept and move on

Should you accept this or should you chase repeated surgeries to find the nirvana of what you had? I don’t have the answer. But for me, surgery isn’t the solution to finding my body nirvana.

Your old body may have been superhero perfect, and now you have scars, or your body may not have been superhero perfect, but now you don’t recognise it. Like Cat Woman, did you get a minor scratch from that cat-like creature? And have now lost your eye; scarred and not counselled that this was a possibility?

Your hair was beautiful: straight/curly and your crown and now? Your body feels like it has been through a major collision and has had a bad panel beating job. You’re now in menopause. Your body isn’t the shape it was. You have hair on your face, and the hair on your head is grey, curly and fluffy. Can you accept this? Part of being a superhero is accepting that you’re not the same and moving on.

The new you

The blast is in the past. Yet you still have side effects from treatment. Your body isn’t the same. Your mind is sometimes fuzzy. You remember vaguely how things were: your body, mind or emotions. You can’t seem to do and behave like you did. 

Your superhero suit consists of medication that you don’t want to take. An invisible barrier that separates the old you from the new. But you know what you can do: proudly choose how you wear your suit; your design of your suit and how others see it. 

Yes, you’ll take your suit off at times and cry for the old. But stand in front of the mirror and celebrate your new powers. Everyone is scared. But you’ve gone through a tremendous challenge. You’ve found the Tesseract (the source) and now can proudly celebrate what you’ve been through to carry it. No one can take away the journey you’ve travelled. They can’t understand. And don’t for one-minute think that they’re not a little jealous that you managed. Because if they were chosen, and yes, they think about “What if I was chosen”, they may not have managed.

Define a new norm. You can’t change the blast; but you can rock a new look and new you and find your superpower. Because after all you’ve been through, the rest of the peeps you interact with sure feel that you have one.

Relationships: then and now

The problem with transforming blasts is that no one understands. They haven’t been through chemo, radiation, surgery or menopause. They know the old you. 

How do they relate to the new you, and how do you relate to them? There are parts of the old you that you and your close circle will hold onto. That black jacket from the Captain Marvel movie; that you loved and everyone associates with you. 

No one can understand; don’t expect them too. They too miss the old you, like you do. But they still want a relationship with the new you. So, find your common ground. Discuss the old, the best and worst. Acknowledge the change and that relationships break if both parties don’t put enough thought and time into it. All relationships change. You aren’t the person you were when you were 18. Your friendships then, if they are to last or be rekindled, require an understanding of mutual change. 

Let’s talk about family and partner dynamics. Relationships don’t break because of a breast cancer diagnosis. Relationships break because of lack of compromise around change. 

Look at your partner; does he/she look the same as last year, 10 or 20 years ago? Or have the same habits? Has he/she not changed? Look at your kids; are they the same? No, they are not. They have grown and changed and you had to change your relationship with them as they grew. This is a fundamental premise that ensures that relationships survive. Should you wish them to. You can’t treat your 14-year-old like a two-year-old (though sometimes they behave the same).

Define what you want because you’re the superhero. Do you want the past relationship? This isn’t going to happen. Can you embrace and define a new relationship? Because guess what? You need to be the instigator here.

What is your superpower?

You’ve undergone a blast. It was out of your control. What is in your control is figuring out your superpower. I’m not sure we realise our capacity for change. Do you remember in Captain Marvel when she realised that she was only using 10% of her power and was being held back by her own mental ropes? 

It takes a while for her to pull aside the ropes and work out how she is going to change and save the universe. This so resonates with me as to truly see growth is when you realise it’s not about you. 

I think a cancer diagnosis for most allows for an understanding of glimpsing at mortality. This often allows an opportunity for finding a hidden superpower.

Have you found yours? I too had a blast. Not one I talk about ever; different to cancer but still a blast. I found my superpower. 

Go look for yours – Captain Marvel (lous).

And remember as you search the universe, remember that famous bear and his friends, “The things that make me different are the things that make me, me.”

Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up internationally accredited, multi-disciplinary breast cancer centres at Helen Joseph Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.

MEET THE EXPERT – Prof Carol-Ann Benn

Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up internationally accredited, multi-disciplinary breast cancer centres at Helen Joseph Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.


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