Children with cancer are the real superheroes

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Recently I met a boy, a boy with leukemia, a young boy with comic-book worthy superpowers. This boy, this superhero, is one I will never, never forget.

When I entered the exam room, I was immediately struck by the sight of a young boy who should have been playing football with his friends at the park or jumping off the high-dive at the pool, but instead was curled up in bed with yet another cancer-related illness. Instead of seeing a seriously ill child, however, I saw a fighter, a Winston Churchill never-give-upper, a battle-beaten-but-war-fighting-combat-warrior, and at his side, his mother-faithful, determined, and strong-beyond-even-her-own-natural-strength.

I began my questioning, and quickly realized, as I often do with chronically ill patients familiar with the medical system, that I was just another face behind a long white coat. This boy and his mother knew precisely how to give a good history, and knew the dates, doses, and diagnoses for every prior treatment. His “history of present illness,” or HPI, was just the tip of a very large iceberg, and within moments did I realize that only a deep dive into the electronic record would provide sufficient depth to fully comprehend the iceberg’s volume and mass.

Eager to connect with the boy and not the disease, I asked him what movie he had gone to earlier in the day with his father, just hours before beginning his unfortunate visit to multiple hospitals with yet another cancer-related complication. The boy lit up like a bright light bulb in a dusty, tired porch light as he told me he had just seen, Ant-man, a comic-book movie which just opened in theaters. He loved comic books and proceeded to tell me about why Marvel comics were far superior to all other comic books. I continued my medical evaluation, periodically asking questions about his symptoms and offering examination instructions, but all-the-while continued to explore his love for Ant-man and all Marvel comic-book characters.

I finished my exam and returned to the physician work room at 1 a.m. to dive into his medical records. After an hour of reading about the complications he had experienced, the infections he had overcome, and the alphabet-soup chemotherapeutic drugs he had survived, I suddenly realized that this boy, the one curled up in bed and came to life when asked about his comic book heroes, was in reality, a superhero himself. He was constantly overcoming obstacle after obstacle, fighting off illness that the brightest minds in the universe have yet to fully understand, and was doing it all with inspiring enthusiasm and optimism.

I came home the next day, and for the first time in my life, found myself entrenched in the throngs of comic book information online, in search of a better understanding as to the qualities and superpowers of the Marvel superheroes who had won this young boy’s adoring heart.

To my young superhero patient, and to any young patient who may be battling cancer or chronic illness, let me tell you about a few of the greatest superheroes ever created, superheroes whose superpowers you too possess.

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Spider Woman

At a young age, Spider-Woman Jessica Drew became gravely ill from months of uranium poisoning. To save her life, her father injected her with an experimental serum based on irradiated spiders’ blood, and sealed her in a genetic accelerator, only to emerge decades later at the age of just seventeen. Jessica was initially ostracized by her peers, and spent much of her life trying to prove herself to those around her. She developed superpowers, which you too, may possess. Jessica possesses superhuman strength, is able to lift at least seven tons, and can focus her bio-electric energy into “venom blasts” sufficient to stun or kill normal humans. Her body forms an immunity to all poisons and drugs, and she is totally immune to radiation. Jessica has lost and regained her powers more than once, but has recently emerged with her powers restored greater than ever.

Like Jessica, you possess superhero strength, overcoming the challenges facing a childhood you never dreamt would be yours. Your body may possess the powerful immunity to all poisons and drugs, which, in the case of chemotherapeutic agents, may be not a blessing but a curse, but nonetheless this power is one only gifted to special children like you and Spider-Woman.

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Beast

Born with a mutation that left his strength and reflexes heightened and his limbs enlarged, Hank McCoy was one of the five founding members of the X-Men. Despite Hank’s inhuman appearance, he possessed a genius-level intelligence and was described as brilliant and well-educated in the arts and sciences. He was a world authority on biochemistry and genetics, the X-Men’s medical doctor, and a professor of science and mathematics at the Xavier Institute, the X-Men’s headquarters, and primary training institution. Beast still struggled with his outward appearance, eventually taking a self-made serum in the hopes of reversing its effects, which instead triggered a secondary mutation, turning him into a furry blue cat-man. Despite these setbacks, Beast relied upon his intellect and his cat-like night vision, reflexes, and razor-sharp claws to overcome his foes.

Just like Hank, you too may have entered this life with an unfair abnormality in your genetic makeup where changes in your DNA leave you to face physical challenges different from many of your friends at school. Congenital mutations are not your fault, nor that of your parents. Fortunately, researchers are working day and night in laboratories worldwide to try and discover how to detect and treat such mutations. Your physical challenges may change the games you play at recess, but, like Hank McCoy, your brain and intellect will help you too become one of the brightest minds in medicine and science. The seemingly endless doctors visits, tests, and procedures are classes in your own medical education, helping you to become knowledgable about your condition and allowing you to teach others what you know, just like Hank McCoy.

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Daredevil

As a boy, Matt Murdock’s life was forever changed when in the process of saving a man from an oncoming truck, the truck spilled a radioactive cargo that left Matt blind. While from that point on he was unable to see, Matt continued his pursuit of learning and education, and later became a successful trial lawyer. It was not Matt’s intellect, however, that was his most unique superpower. As with many who lose their vision, Matt’s other senses became exceedingly enhanced and strengthened. Matt’s sense of touch is sensitive enough to detect the faint impressions of ink on paper, allowing him to read by touch. His sense of smell helps him track anyone’s individual scent through a crowd of people from fifty feet away. His sense of taste is sharp enough to detect the number of grains of salt on a pretzel and identify every ingredient of a food or drink. And finally, Matt’s hearing can detect a heartbeat from twenty feet away and identify people and even determined if they are telling the truth based on their individual heart rhythm.

For any number of reasons, many diseases cause us to lose the ability of our five natural senses. While the challenges you may face due to this loss are unmistakable, your ability to develop enhanced senses is a superpower few on this planet will ever understand. If blind, your hearing may become more sensitive, if hearing-impaired, your ability to perceive sound by sight may increase, and your other senses may also become more sensitive. Finally, what makes Daredevil such a great hero, and the reason he was given the name Daredevil, is that he is a ‘man without fear.’ He sees danger all around him with his super-senses, yet he barrels into it with a smile on his face. Just like Daredevil Matt Murdock, you are fearless, and your special senses will help you fight and overcome any obstacle in your way.

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Storm

Heralded as one of the most powerful comic book characters and a member of the X-Men, Ororo Munroe was born into a family of sorcerers and priestesses and possesses one of the most powerful of all superpowers — the ability to control the weather. Storm can control the temperature of the environment, control all forms of precipitation, humidity, and moisture, and generate lightning and other electromagnetic atmospheric phenomena. Throughout her life, Storm learns that her emotions, unless carefully controlled, can be manifest in sometimes catastrophic weather changes. She develops a strong sense of willpower as she must control her emotions and keep her from causing tornadoes and earthquakes that may harm those around her.

Like Storm, you too can control, in many ways, the climate of the world around you. While you may often feel discouraged and even hopeless, your attitude contributes significantly to the weather at home and everywhere you go. When you choose to be rainy, others too feel the rain, and when you choose tornadoes, the wind spins angrily; but when you choose optimism and hope, the sun shines down on you and radiates beams of sunshine to everyone you meet. Yours is one of the greatest superpowers of all – the ability to control the weather, everywhere you go.

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Spiderman

Peter Parker, known worldwide as Spiderman, is the hero of all heroes, though his normal, everyday life seems much different than so many of Marvel’s other superheroes. Peter is an orphaned science genius, and while attending a science exhibit as a boy, is bitten by a radioactive spider, giving him the agility and proportionate strength of an arachnid. Through his native knack for science, he develops a gadget that lets him fire adhesive webbing of his own design through small, wrist-mounted barrels. Despite his spider-like superpowers, Peter is just a normal, adolescent just like you, was once a shy, nerdy high school student, became a troubled but outgoing college student, and later became a successful freelance photographer. Throughout his life, Peter Parker frequently struggles with living these two seemingly separate lives, as both a “normal” boy and a heroic superhero. At one point in Spiderman Peter Parker’s young life, he ignored his superpowers and failed to stop a thief, the same thief, ironically, who would later rob and kill his Uncle Ben. In this specific comic book’s next to last caption, Spiderman learned a great lesson, as the caption reads, “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!”

Like Spiderman’s Peter Parker, you too may struggle living two separate lives, as a normal child, and as a superhero. You may often wish you were just like the other boys in your neighborhood, and it may seem that they don’t understand the unique challenges you face as a superhero with medical conditions they have never heard of and do not fully understand. When you enter the hospital and put on your hospital gown, always remember that your gown is like Spiderman’s uniform, and the IV on your wrist is just like Spiderman’s web-shooters, one of the many superpowers you have developed to help triumph over any complication in your path.

Remember, whether your superpower may be your strong immune system, your bright intellect, your enhanced senses, your ability to control the weather, or your strength and wrist-clad web-shooters, remember, always, my young Superhero, to be careful with these superpowers, because the rest of us Earth-dwelling mortals do not possess your amazing superpowers, and, always remember: “With great power there must also come great responsibility!”

Steve Christiansen is an ophthalmology resident who blogs at EyeSteve.  He can be reached on Twitter @EyeSteve.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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