Following his first round of chemotherapy, the Wallander author contemplates the medical professionals whose work has allowed some hopeful cancer sufferers moments of quiet contentment
The Guardian, Thursday 22 May 2014
‘There are no guarantees where cancer is concerned, of course – but when in life is anything guaranteed?’ Photograph: Jacopo Raule/Getty Images
After nearly five months, the first basic round of chemotherapy treatment for my cancer is complete. It was concluded with a week of intensive testing. I’m preparing myself for the follow-up appointment with Dr Bengt Bergman using the only strategy open to me: hoping for the best and preparing myself for the worst.
But the chemotherapy has been effective I’m told on the 12 May at 10.30am. Some of my tumours seem to have vanished altogether, others have reduced in size to a varying extent, and nothing new seems to have appeared. There are no guarantees where cancer is concerned, of course – but when in life is anything guaranteed? As far as my wife Eva and I are concerned, a sort of normality, which is timeless, is returning.
That evening we sit out on the veranda for quite a long time, feeling relieved and listening to the blackbird singing on our chimney stack. Our happiness is tranquil, silent. We don’t need to speak. The blackbird is imitating Bach. As for me, lacking the voice of the blackbird, I have previously sung the praises of the staff at the Sahlgrenska Hospital in Gothenburg. Their skills, their patience, their outstanding work and the caring way in which they treat their patients.
But I have also realised that I must sing the praises of cancer research – achievements in the past, in the present, and in what will happen tomorrow.
Let me provide two very different pieces of evidence. At the beginning of the 1950s the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein visits his doctor in Oxford, where he is working. He receives the following information: “You have cancer. Your illness is incurable, and you don’t have long to live.”
Wittgenstein’s reply is said to have been the laconic but absurdly cheerful: “Great! Excellent!”
Then he apparently stood up, returned to his lodgings and continued working on his philosophical theories until, sure enough, he died quite soon afterwards.
Most people don’t react like Wittgenstein did, of course. They hope for alleviation and cure. For a life that can be extended, and made bearable.
Which leads me to my second piece of evidence.
The other day I telephoned my friend G in Umeå, who lost his wife nearly 20 years ago due to a cancer similar to the one affecting me now. We can only agree that today, she would have had the same chance as I have to ward off the illness – just as I would have been a loser like she was if I had been stricken 20 years ago.
During the treatment I have been receiving I have tried to familiarise myself with the history of cancer research, and it has become clear to me that this really is one of the triumphs of human endeavour. Nowadays there seem to be new methods of treatment discovered almost every month. Such as chemotherapy that concentrates on more precise details. Medicines that can aim at specific kinds of carcinogenic changes and types. I gather from Dr Bergman, who devotes part of his time to research, that a considerable amount of work needs to be devoted simply to keeping abreast of what is happening in the field.
The fact that so much highly qualified research is being carried out is of course easy to understand. There are huge potential profits for pharmaceutical companies. The dream of being able to eradicate cancer is still a very distant prospect, but nevertheless practical reality illustrates what brilliant partial victories are being achieved all the time.
Naturally, I have to believe that deep down inside the individual researcher, or the team in which he or she is working, is a fundamental humanistic starting point that has to do with the patient’s wellbeing and the right to live for as long as possible. I am convinced that this is the case.
In Sweden the work of Cancerfonden (The Swedish Cancer Society) and Barncancerfonden (The Swedish Childhood Cancer Foundation) is of critical importance for this research. Needless to say the state contributes large amounts to ongoing cancer research, but the donations made by individual people or companies play an important part in this work which must continue until all aims are achieved.
I don’t know what would have happened to me had it not been for that research. I can’t express it any simpler than that.
Now I can sit out in the evening and hear the blackbird singing. And think about all the researchers who have contributed to this happy state of affairs through their work.
• Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson