Yavi Madurai: How breast cancer changed me
Digital content specialist, Investec
Digital transformation strategist Yavi Madurai was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28. Here's her inspirational story about beating all the odds and how the disease transformed her for the better.
Being told at the age of 28 that you’ve got breast cancer and won’t be able to have children would be a shock for any woman. For Yavi Madurai, the founder and MD of digital transformation company Black Box Theory, this news didn’t define her, and she conquered the disease and defied all odds by having a child. On top of all this, she left her corporate career and started her own business.
In this wide-ranging Focus Talks video, we discuss various aspects of a breast cancer diagnosis from the importance of sisterhood in navigating the disease to Yavi’s treatment journey and the impact of a diagnosis on your loved ones.
We used the opportunity to quiz Yavi, a well-known media commentator on the potential and pitfalls of social media, to share her advice to parents on how to monitor your child’s online activity. She also talks about three things companies need to be cognisant of when building their brands online and how the Fourth Industrial Revolution can empower women.
Skip to sections that interest you most, or read the transcript below.
Ok guys, thank you and welcome to another Focus Talk, the latest in a series of conversations with leaders, change-makers and innovators. Investec Life is launching a very brave and candid campaign that addresses women’s health. It centres on stories of women from Investec who have fought and won battles against cancer. And today’s guest is one such women, not only has she beaten breast cancer, but she’s also built a very successful business and she’s become a recognised authority on digital media.
Her name is Yavi Madurai and you’ve likely seen her on TV or heard her on radio talking about social media trends and best practices for business, or you may have come across some of her tips on how to protect your kids on-line which is something we are going to cover today.
When Investec Life put Yavi forward as a guest for Focus Talks I jumped at the opportunity to interview her for two reasons: Firstly, I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer at the age of 35 and I had a double mastectomy in 2016 and I find her story truly uplifting and inspirational, and secondly, I work on the Digital Content team at Investec, so I am passionate about the power of digital story telling and so here we are today.
01:18: Getting a breast cancer diagnosis
IB: Can we start with your breast cancer journey and the moment you first realised you had it, you were 28, it was probably the last thing on your mind?
Yavi Madurai: For sure.
IB: So how did you pick up that there was a problem?
YM: It was very simple, I wasn’t doing breast self-examinations, we didn’t know about it at the time to be very honest with you, it was the world pre-social media. Can you imagine a world without social media? But yes... communication especially about breast cancer or cancer in general, media didn’t necessarily cover it, it was something we didn’t speak about as humanity. So, this is 2003 I’m talking about.
So, having a shower something was sticking out, out of my boob, like, and I kind of thought hey that’s weird, what is that? I looked down and there was literally something sticking out the side and I put my arm down and it went away, picked my arm up, nothing there, so I honestly thought I was having a moment of insanity and I, inverted comma’s, “I forgot about it” for a couple of days.
I mentioned to my husband somewhere along the line, you know, I found this thing... and he’s a banker so he was like this is, that’s ridiculous, go to the doctor, what is wrong with you in his general way.
Nedbank had a medical centre ... da da da da da, went through all of that, went to the doctor. Yeah, a couple of tests later, mammogram, biopsy, it was confirmed on a Friday at two minutes past three, it’s the last time I wore a watch because time means something different to me these days. I took off my watch after that, two minutes past three pm. I was told you have breast cancer.
IB: Shew, I get all teary.
YM: Because you know how it feels.
03:27: Breast cancer is not ageist, racist or sexist
IB: Yavi, you had no family history of breast cancer so what was response from your family?
YM: So, at the time, and things have changed, well I hope they have changed, but things have changed from a media perspective. At the time it was seen as a white women’s disease, so Indian women, black women, coloured women, blue women, purple women didn’t get breast cancer because whatever media coverage there was, it was around a white person or a white woman.
We know people who have had breast cancer but the Indian community whispers about it in walls because it is seen as a curse or something I don’t know, at the time. So, first there was that. The second aspect of it was like do you speak about it; don’t you speak about it? And being the rebel that I am obviously I wanted to speak about it.
The second aspect of it was that my grandmother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in that same year. So, the fact that the two of us had cancer, didn’t matter that the cancers were different... it changed the dynamic of my family, from there on. We became more focussed on the power of womanhood, the power of sisterhood within our family.
04:40: Choosing to adopt a positive or negative attitude to cancer
IB: And I think when I chatted to you last week you described the way that your gran took her diagnosis very differently to the way that you took it, could you talk us through that?
YM: Sure. My granny, if she was born at a different time, she would have been a maniacal CEO and she was very focussed on specific things, very driven, very determined. She used to say things to me like when you want something here you aim higher, so you achieve it anyway, and if you don’t do something properly then you don’t do it at all.
It was years later I was sitting in an MBA class and I was like” ah I’ve been in an MBA class since I was three”, you know because it was the way that she said things.
So, this is the person that we are talking about from a context perspective. And then when cancer happened, she went all negative, all negative. She fought with God, she fought with people, she fought with everyone. She just, she in her world it was like “After everything you have done to me and I have been strong and I have been positive, why would you do this?”
So, I saw that and when I was diagnosed I just couldn’t see my... because she raised me to be a positive, strong, independent woman and now? So that impacted me hugely and I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t become that.
06:15: Yavi’s treatment journey
IB: And your journey, you know you pretty much had to go through everything, you had a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, how did you deal with this time in your life?
YM: I coined a phrase at the time and it’s a good context to start. I coined the phrase that my friends became the family that God forgot to give me because we had literally just moved to Johannesburg, there wasn’t much family from a support perspective. It was literally just Ashton and I and lots of friends.
The chemo, I had the, the top grade, shall we call it. They walk towards you, they are in full medical regalia in terms of coverage - even their faces are closed and they have got a pouch in their hand that’s black and whatever colour, there’s different chemos, and it’s got skull bones on it, and that is going in your body, but they are walking around like that.
IB: They really need to work on their, on their packaging right!
YM: And their marketing and branding! For sure their packaging needs to change. But that was chemo. The thing I didn’t tell you about chemo when we met the last time was that we used to have eating parties.. so…
IB: Sounds like a normal day in my life.
YM: Yeah, but this was, this was dark, it was dark and funny all at the same time. So, we used to literally have McDonalds and Black Forest cake while we were having chemo because we all knew we were going to be running to the bathroom and throwing it up anyway so.... Ya that was chemo.
However, the dark side to chemo is that it has an impact on your body that you can’t explain. Chemo and then subsequent radiation literally kills you from the inside. What cancer doesn’t do to you chemo does to you in terms of killing poison but it kills you in the process and then radiation burns you from the inside, so your skin turns, your everything: eyes, tongue, fingers, finger-nails, everything turns black.
So lost hair, changed a funny colour… ah ya, it was when my husband and I were married for seven years at the time so our seven year itch was very different...
YM: So, I had chemo on a Thursday and the effects, whatever the effects were, used to kick-in on a Friday afternoon. My boss, is she here? My boss was Rue Bateman. I had never met a woman at that stage in the banking industry that stood up for other women. And then I met Rue, and everything changed. And it must have been a spiritual connection of some kind that I had to work for her when I went through this, like I have no doubt that there was a reason for it.
09:17: Dealing with hair loss post chemo
IB: So, a friend of mine who, who underwent chemo described it as the worst morning sickness you’ve ever had combined with the worst hangover you’ve ever had.
YM: For sure.
IB: But for many women the hair loss is the big thing ... and you took it very differently…
YM: Yeah, so life was very different in 2003 for any of you that remember 2003. We weren’t as open, as free and as accepting of different, alternative looks to beauty shall we call it. So bald women were not seen... you were just seen as a thug, like it was just hectic.
So also I put on 25 kilos because I got ten years’ worth of steroids or cortisone within a period of three months so, and I gave you the context, on the 9th January I started chemo and my birthday and I was a size 6 and my birthday is the 28th of April and I bought a size 16 skirt so argh.
So, the first chemo happens, two weeks later the hair falls out and we had made plans, because I was very much about this. I had the wig made. So it was waiting and prepared. The day we went to go and have my head shaved we saw this lady next to me, an oldish lady. So she looks at me, they are shaving my head and she’s sitting next to me and she says “How dare you, how dare you shave your head with that lovely hair and I am dying for hair,” and you know my hairdresser wanted to kill her but we survived.
But then somebody else walked passed and said “Ah how cool”, so I thought to myself if someone sees this as cool and I, forget the old lady next to me, and if I have to deal with myself and Ashton has to deal with myself bald and thank God my mother had a Caesarean section so my head is perfectly round… then maybe I can pull this off right? So we walked from one end of Fourways Mall, and I counted all of two people nkind of looked at me, but they didn’t look at me in a funny way, they were looking at me like “Oh wow” and I thought “Ahhh I can do this”.
And that is until I got to Nedbank for meetings on the Monday morning with a bald head. Normally women have to be subjected to looking at cleavage and other things, in my case it was like here, my eyes are here, not here.
So, it was an interesting time walking around bald in Johannesburg, fat and bald. So, I owned it… I know hey, so I didn’t even have all the eyebrows and the eyelashes, but my husband probably put up with the most. He’s the one that had to kind of walk around with a fat, bald chick non his arm.
12:10: The impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on your loved ones
IB: Let’s talk about that, because often sort of the partners and the families of someone who has got cancer, kind of, their needs are often put aside because they don’t want to put extra stress on you now, and how did he cope, how did he deal with everything?
YM: So, Ashton doesn’t deal with crisis well, he’s going to hate me for saying that, but it’s the truth. And I am the pillar of strength, so I am the one that unravels his knot that he gets into when it
comes to crisis. So obviously with me being the problem, or the crisis, it took on a very strange dynamic in our household.
One of the ladies that used to constantly interview me, she was like I am so sick and tired of interviewing you I am going to interview Ashton. So, I am like he is not going to talk, like good luck to you.
So, she did and she obviously found a way to get him to talk, but two years after the cancer that whole journey I am reading the newspaper... he is sitting and watching sport, and I finally found out what he felt and thought.
So, our bond got stronger during it, just because we could speak about death in a very realistic way, which most families can’t. Most couples don’t or can’t, we had to, and now we speak about it very nonchalantly, because that is life. Life, tomorrow you can be gone, so that is what changes human beings, that is what changes the dynamic of a relationship.
13:43: Yavi’s miracle baby
IB: And so, you have been through all of this and then they tell you, you can never have children at the age of 28, 29.
YM: So yes… the child story. I was very focused on my career, so if you met me around 25, 26 years old I was going to be the CEO of a bank by the time I was 35, that was done, in my head the box was ticked. There was no, it wasn’t negotiable in my head, so I would workdays, nights, whatever I needed to do in order to be able to achieve my goals. For me my goals were everything career-wise.
I had a very supportive husband who is ambitious himself, so we were fine. I put off having a child, because my career came first, and I’m not afraid to say that now because it’s the lesson that I had to learn. And I was very arrogant, I was extremely egotistical is not even a good enough word to use because you know I, I felt I could do anything. It was the nature of working in corporate banking at the time.
And the day that I was diagnosed, when those words were said at two minutes pass three, “you have breast cancer” the response was, not “how long do I have to live?”, “am I going to die?” like whatever the normal questions, I was like “but I haven’t had a child as yet?”. It was like how dare you give me that news and I haven’t had a child as yet, you know the arrogance even showed then.
But, ya, so we waited until remission, and then, well, remission it was said too much damage to your body. I said, “But other people have had” and the response to me was but your body doesn’t work normally.
Ya, so I made peace with it, I didn’t want to be one of those women, and I’m not judging anyone who does, but I didn’t want to be one of those women who were consumed by the fact that I can’t have a child where it consumed my life, it made me upset to see another person pregnant. I didn’t want to be one of those women, so I took a week off, I mourned, I cried, I did what I needed to do, I went to a therapist, I did whatever it was and I made peace with it.
Fast forward two years, can’t have children… So, I book a VIP trip to Old Trafford, because that’s Manchester United we have to go and kiss the ground and do all of those things, I don’t understand it but ya.
Book the trip, buy a house, the house is so not child-friendly, buy two-door cars like we’re living the dream, the life without children, yes. And building a house, if any of you have built a house, you know the drama about builders and things not on time… but I turned into a super ‘B-I-T-C-H’ of note.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was four months pregnant when I walked into the doctor’s office to say I think menopause has hit because my moodswings are really hectic and you told me I am going to have early menopause and I think it’s time for us to face facts. Just tell me what to do, how to deal with it, because I need to live my life. And she was like OK let’s go and do the test…. internal, no, you are four months pregnant. Oh, you are pregnant, I’m like no that’s a tumour. She’s like tumours don’t have heartbeats.
Medical science, according to my oncologist, still cannot be explained because I … he said to me how did this happen, I said shall I draw you pictures? You told me this can’t happen. What must I do? So, yes and we are celebrating her twelfth birthday on Sunday.
IB: That’s amazing.
YM: She doesn’t know she is a miracle though; she doesn’t act like it.
IB: She is 12 so that probably explains it.
17:46: How cancer changed Yavi for the better
IB: So, I mean, you did touch on it, but you never come out of the cancer experience as the same person. How did it change you? You know from sort of career climbing… you said you were arrogant; how did it change you afterwards?
YM: It changed me from two perspectives in that I wanted to do, I wanted to have a career, or I wanted to do business whatever it was, but with purpose… to be able to do something that is impactful in some shape or form, so that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, is that sisterhood thing that we talk about, and it’s a buzz word and it’s an Instagram thing, and it’s a social media angle, and we talk about it, but for me it became a legacy.
As women we are very… and this started before, it started in my career - remember I told you the story about Rue? And when I met Rue. I obviously left Nedbank. I resigned and left Nedbank and went elsewhere, but that stayed with me, so I made it my duty after that to become “Rue” in inverted comma’s in terms of always making sure that we don’t stab other women in the back.
It was actually the opposite; it was how do we create a culture and a mindset and a focus on creating that women empowerment and how do we speak about it in normal terms. So sisterhood now from a business perspective, family, friends, everything, means it’s possibly my entire thing aside from my family, Ashton and Tanith, but, and a sister is here today to support me.
Because cancer, breast cancer, we don’t understand how it impacts us as women. We are expected to be normal, we are expected to go work, we are expected to do those kind of things, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t, I’m saying to you it’s the women in our lives sometimes that expect you to be fine. Not us, because we are fine, so you expect the next women to be fine and that for me needed to change. So those are the two fundamental things that impacted back then, what the rest of my life needed to mean.
20:03: What drove her to start her own business
IB: And did that sort of drive you then to move out of corporate and found your own business with Black Box Theory.
YM: Obviously it was also time, I had a three-year-old and I’d begged God for this child and miracle and now I’m 200 days away from this child.
I started Black Box Theory, it’s a management consultancy, we do digital transformation. We do really cool things, you know, I have a hacker that works for me that hacks my daughters account because “hello teenage child” or pre-teen, and bots and chat bots, but we also do things in terms of brand and reputation management
and those kind of things.
Social media became my thing, just from a media perspective, so it’s one aspect of what we do, but social media gave me a voice, and it gave me an understanding of how the world works and most importantly social media is about human connection.
21:06: Entrepreneurship: “The hardest thing I’ve ever done”
IB: So you went from this very hectic job and then you moved and set up your own business which a lot of people say is much harder, it’s actually more stressful… and then you spoke to me the other day about sort of new-found spirituality that you had and that you wake up at 4am every morning to meditate which just blows my mind. Did you not worry about the breast cancer coming back or anything like that from this increased work that you took on?
YM: So you and I are forever bonded with our pink ribbon sisters in terms of the fact that that axe hangs above our head every day… and the thing is that if we live in fear about it coming back, we can’t
Whatever time I had left, remember I said to you there needed to be a legacy because I was like Ashton is 30, he will get married, my parents will miss me forever but what is left of me? There’s nothing here. And obviously from a child perspective now that’s changed, but in terms of legacy, true legacy.
So, I think to kind of you know consolidate the past nine or ten years of business and entrepreneurship is that, first of all, you are never not at work. So, you are thinking about work when you go
to sleep, when you get up, you are thinking about invoices… money, no money… da da da da… permanently.
Clients - you go from having one boss to five thousand bosses because when every client phones at the same time to see you, you find a way to cut yourself up in ten pieces. So, entrepreneurship has created entirely different dynamic for me. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, including cancer.
22:53: Coping with stress through spirituality
YM: Faith and spirituality is more important to us than a specific religion, purely because we have two religions in our household, it coexists, it’s coinciding, 23 years later.
Spirituality for me is about human connection, it’s about understanding that depth, that authenticity, that human-ness in ourselves and I immediately know, you can offer me millions of rands, and it’s very tempting from a business perspective, but if I don’t trust you, there’s something about you, you and I will never see each other again.
The spirituality starts at 4am… meditation gives me the peace to be able to deal with whatever is coming during the day – and some of the things are quite huge – but, I start at 4am , gym and then, you know, life happens, so I find a way to be able to make sure, that impactfully my spirituality runs through myself, my business, my business partners, the people that I do business with, the people that I collaborate with – I don’t see it as business partnerships, I see it as collaboration – and I have a true belief in wealth and abundance for all. There’s enough for everyone, we don’t have to fight, and that becomes the core of this.
24:20: Technology and female emancipation
YM: And digital transformation – we all hear 4IR, 4IR, 4IR from a technology perspective. Digital transformation is changing the face of the world, and in the future, we are going to be able to have opportunities that we never had before. So all the previous revolutions before - the first to the third - you saw emerging economies like China, India take advantage of those industrial revolutions. Africa never joined those revolutions. It’s now our time if we choose.
IB: And continuing on that theme you are passionate particularly about the impact on women that this new technology can have…
IB: Do you want to talk a bit about that?
YM: In our country because of the fact that the poorest people live the furthest away from the economic centres which means transport costs, those kinds of things are hugely challenging.
So, you look at women, and I am talking specifically women, that are in difficult situations, and when I say difficult situations I mean financially and economically. Economic emancipation is something that is an outcome or a result of digital transformation and those kinds of things.
Women who didn’t have access, whether it be because they are super wealthy living in twenty million rand houses but are not financially independent or whether it is the young woman that is sitting in rural Mpumalanga that has no way of coming to Joburg to be able to come and find a job, So, it’s the extreme cases and in between, so that all of a sudden the expansive technology allows them to be able to access things.
Whether it is via social media, because that becomes our door, our entry point is that everyone knows about social media, they enter through social media.
There is approximately three thousand Instagram, online, informal beauty and fashion shops on Instagram in South Africa alone. That means that we are not even talking sports gear, we are not even talking everything else. Women’s clothes, shoes and make-up, 3000 Instagram… these are people from Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, they have economically emancipated themselves. This, and I am just giving you an example, that’s not 4IR technically, but what happens when we have technology like 5G?
26:48: How to monitor your children’s online activities
IB: Very, very powerful. Yavi, I’ve got to go back to the hacker, hacking your child’s social media accounts. There are lots of parents in the room and my seven-year-old is addicted to Minecraft already. It’s quite a terrifying and we’ve spoken about the opportunities, but how do you monitor that as a parent and what advice do you have for us?
YM: I work in this space and one day I was like, you know what I am not even going to fight this battle. There is a guy that has the ability to do this, so she knows, she knows that don’t even try creating fake accounts because we will find you…
I don’t understand why parents are fearful of going into online spaces, so they will be like I am not on Facebook. Why? Your child is there, if your child is there you need to be there, if anything just to stalk. You don’t have to be friends; you just need to stalk.
Go and spend time understanding how this works, how those platforms work. I am 44 years old, so I am not the generation of the digital natives of social media, so how did I get to this point? The point I am trying to make is that when you are interested enough to be able to make sure that you know what is happening out there.
So, in short, there are apps to monitor your child from a social media perspective, from a location perspective - so you don’t even have to put chips or things on their phone, you literally have to have their phone’s details, it Bluetooths, it picks it up, it can pick it up anywhere in the world.
Constantly read about what is happening in the world of online media, what kind of phishing, p-h-, phishing is happening with these young girls, how are pedophiles now changing the game because now access is completely different.
But be in the know, the moment you are in the know, the moment you are Googling how to keep my daughter safe, how to do this, how to do that. A simple thing, do you do a reverse image search of your children’s faces on Google, once a month, once every six months to see if their faces are not being put on child pornography sites.
So, just understand that we live in different times. If we live in boomed estates, security guards, security things on our windows, doors, alarm systems, whatever, why are we not putting the equivalent of that on the expensive devices that we hand our children?
Have you put in safe search, have you checked, have you got family accounts… she’s not allowed to have her own account and if she does, you need to find it. And snooping? You’re a parent…Snoop! You are allowed!
29:39: At what age should you give your child their first cell phone?
IB: So, something that I’m grappling with. What is the optimal age to give your child a smart phone?
YM: So, for me it's a case of, you know your child, who knows your child better than the parent? And we must get out of this habit of judging another parent if the parent gives the child a phone earlier than they should have it. What does that mean? Because you know your circumstances.
But then you put the security and the alarm systems, and whatever else on those phones. Or there’s the phones that don't have access to all these kinds of platforms. They literally do WhatsApp and make telephone calls. Then by all means give your child a device to empower you from a safety perspective. This isn’t about other people; it's about making sure that you and your child are safe.
30:26: Building your brand online
IB: You've obviously built up your big following on social media and it's helped you as an entrepreneur. Could you give us some pointers on building your own brand online?
YM: Building a brand on social media is very simple. It's about three things and please hear me. It's about authenticity, don't be something you're not.
Social media will find you if you are not authentic. It will see you. You will see yourself if you are not authentic. If you are not, so from a brand building perspective, if you are into too much advertising, so when I say advertising, even individuals like to advertise themselves. The moment you take too many selfies, the moment you take too much me me me me, we live in the “I” era. I. The moment you do all of that and you are not making it about your audience, you’ll lose it.
The next thing is, is that it’s about added value. So, if you are building a brand and you want to build it and grow it, you need to make sure that whatever you put out, it's one simple thing. It's never about you. It's always about them. Bonang says, give the people what they want. It's simple.
IB: Yavi, I think we are pretty much close to the end; I’ve just got one final question for you. We’ve spoken about your journey today. Would you go through it all again to be where you are today?
YM: Yes and no. Ja Nee. Yes, because, and I've said this many times already if it wasn't for cancer, I wouldn't have changed, and I actually don't know who that person was or who that person would have become more dangerously so. Who that person would have become, and influenced, because when you have power and position then you could have influenced other people.
So, yes for that reason. No, in the sense that, who would have wanted to deal with the suffering, right, and who wants to live with an axe over their head. But I thank cancer. I thank cancer for giving me lessons that I would never have been able to learn, and I thank cancer for letting me see I got a second chance at life, so I'm very grateful for that. But ya, don't darken my door again thanks.
IB: Thank you so much Yavi for coming and chatting to us.
YM: Thank you it was lovely, and I wish you many many, many happy years. Healthy!
Podcast: Busting breast cancer myths
In this Investec Focus podcast, we talk to another breast cancer survivor about her journey, and interview the experts on the medical, psychological and financial aspects of a diagnosis.
About the author
Lead digital content producer
Ingrid Booth is a consumer magazine journalist who made the successful transition to corporate PR and back into digital publishing. As part of Investec's Brand Centre digital content team, her role entails coordinating and producing multi-media content from across the Group for Investec's publishing platform, Focus.
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