He was my ward doctor at the haematology unit where I was treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006.
I was intrigued by him before I even met him. My consultant whispered to me that Jörn had himself been treated for blood cancer, the related but different Hodgkin’s lymphoma. ‘He’ll know what you’re about to go through,’ she said.
Walking round a corner to the ward where he worked, we bumped into him filling a doorway and shout-sharing a joke with some nurses. He shook my hand, put his arm around me, then swore at me for being a Chelsea fan.
That was Jörn in microcosm: warm, intimate and abrupt. I never knew a person who stood on less ceremony.
Readers who knew Jörn will already know why I am writing about him in the past tense. He died suddenly and unexpectedly from peritonitis in September 2011. He was 43.
I have called this piece ‘The art of Jörn Cann’ not because he ran round the wards sketching us while we sat on our drips but because he cared. Of course he did, you might say: he was paid to. Well, yes, up to a point.
The art I am referring to is based on an idea of Seth Godin’s from his book The Icarus Deception. There he talks about ‘art’ as a vital force of connection and transformation as the old industrial model of production crumbles around us. It’s the difference, he says, between a doctor giving you results from a blood test and actually sitting down with you to explain its implications.
That’s art. It disregards the training manual and is mindful of the human stories of others, whatever the risk involved. That was what Jörn gave to patients each day of his life on the haematology wards.
Half way through my treatment, when it looked as though my infusions of chemotherapy were not working, it was Jörn who plopped himself on my bed and without losing eye contact explained: ‘If you’re given a shit pack of cards, those are the ones you play with.’ Then he told me he had been treated for his own cancer, on an off, since he was 16.
He didn’t need to say it, and had not been asked to, but he did: ‘And look at me. I’m still here.’ He relapsed a week later.
Even though I now only visit the unit once a year, I miss Jörn more than I can say.
I saw him for the last time in a Lidl supermarket of all places. He greeted me as though his day had been building up to this one special moment. We swapped plans for future projects and stories of our families, followed by a brief but incisive dissection of Arsenal’s current form. That was a kind of art, too. Most doctors you see outside of hospital premises run for cover if they see you.
Even though the circumstances of our relationship were grim, I am deeply proud to have known him. These are some of the reasons Love for Now is dedicated to his memory.
Towards the end of my treatment for cancer in 2006 I had one of the most profound conversations of my life. It was with my friend the poet Jean Sprackland, who had travelled across the country just to visit me for the day. She brought stationery from Muji. I still think of this as an act of great kindness and affirmation, not just because of the expense involved, but because my confidence in my writing was at an all-time low.
Shuffling along the Exe at a snail’s pace I told her that along with most of my immune system my chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments seemed to have done a pretty good job of nuking any lingering literary ambition I might still have had.
To give her credit, Jean did not collude with the premise of my complaint.
She looked at me: ‘Except we’re not really ambitious as poets are we really? Only for the next poem. The rest is meaningless.’
Each time I feel myself about to spiral into a funk of panic about my deep lack of profile and my extreme lack of fame and wealth, I remember that walk by the river with Jean, wheezing though I was, and taking smaller steps than before.
It was great to hear the BBC’s Deputy Political Editor James Landale’s interview about his experience of treatment for cancer on World at One this lunchtime. He was kind enough to recommend Love for Now, my memoir of treatment for the same disease, to listeners who might be going through similar experiences.
In particular it was great to hear James’ beautiful dismantling of the notion of cancer as a ‘battle’.
You can listen to the whole of World at One on iplayer here. You can listen to the whole of the cancer piece from the programme, including James’ interview, here
Seven years ago this is what happened halfway through my treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I went for a midway scan to report on the shrinkage of my tumour and was given the wrong results.
My tumour was in fact responding well to the chemotherapy treatment I was being given.
But the radiologist who analysed my scan pictures somehow looked at them the wrong way round, so mistakenly saw evidence of my tumour growing. I was told this meant it was not responding to treatment, and that a new, much harsher, course of chemotherapy would have to be put in place for me.
My family and I lived with the ‘truth’ of this misdiagnosis for nine days until the mistake was uncovered. In that time we did our best to commit to ordinary life as best we could, doing the school run, eating and watching crap telly together, as you do. I do know I began writing my funeral service. I even broke the habit of a lifetime and discussed money with my wife.
As my ward doctor told me: ‘If you’re given a shit pack of cards, those are the ones you play with.’
During this time I was glad to come across this poem by Patrick Kavanagh. It became a kind of touchstone, helping me to come to terms with my forthcoming oblivion in language that was even more direct than my doctors’.
Wet Evening in April
The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.