I was born in Stockholm. As their only child, my parents moved to the suburbs when I was six: closer to nature and other children.”
Fabian went to high school in Stockholm, which was the first time he heard about the Stockholm School of Economics. As one of Östra Real’s best students, he upgraded his only three B’s to A’s after graduation.
“At the time, you could improve your marks at a Swedish school anywhere in the world. This was an opportunity for adventure, so my friends and I went to Nairobi. We climbed Mount Kenya, went on safari, and studied really hard; it was like a working vacation.”
“What a pulsating city: the market smells, the sweltering heat, and all the dangers.”
“I returned to Sweden and worked at the Hugo Boss store. I was young, social, and partied a lot. I became interested in acting. My mom worked at the Royal Dramatic Theatre and my father was an opera singer, so they always encouraged me in the arts. But I was always the black sheep in the family since my dream was to become the next Bill Gates.”
In the spring of 2008, Fabian applied to both the Stockholm School of Economics and the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles to which he was accepted. He flew to California that summer for a two-week course in film acting.
“I loved L.A. with all its raw ambition: Hollywood Hills, the Sunset Strip, so many people rushing for that impossible dream ... I decided to stay.”
Fabian was walking past Warner Brothers studio when his mother called with the news: he was accepted into SSE. But Fabian wanted to stay in L.A. She advised her 21-year-old son to come home, go to business school, then try acting afterward if he wanted. Fabian reluctantly agreed and flew home.
“When classes started, I was so resentful: I felt like I had given up my dreams in order to play the safe card, which was never part of my DNA. I walked into SSE with the attitude ‘I’m just going to advance my ability while continuing to act’.”
“I wasn’t really serious about my studies; my focus was on acting. There were auditions for the movie Snabba Cash (Easy Money), which was about a guy that parties in Stockholm’s posh district of Stureplan. I thought it was perfect for me, so I applied and actually landed a speaking role. This is it! I thought: My acting career is about to take off. I went, shot the scene, but it never made it to the final cut. I was so disillusioned that I completely lost interest.”
At 21, Fabian decided to start investing in properties. He bought, renovated, and sold five flats in one year.
“We had just come out of the financial crisis, and the housing market was booming. I also started running an events management agency in Stockholm, hiring six full-time salespeople to host corporate events. Meanwhile, I continued my studies; but my grades were dropping because I was so busy.”
Fabian was now entering his penultimate year of SSE when friends started talking about careers.
“I hadn’t really time to think about that. I needed to get on the bandwagon because other students were starting internships. So, I asked one of my closest friends: ‘What are we supposed to do after SSE?’ Two choices’, he said. ‘Management consulting or investment banking.’”
The glamour of investment banking attracted Fabian. He knew he was good at sales, so he matched his skill set and applied to 20 different banks. Citigroup in London offered him an internship and, ultimately, a job.
“I ended up in trading and actually loved the dynamic and fast-paced environment of investment banking: the responsibility, the intensity, the incredibly long days, and incredible longer nights. I felt like a rock star. Again, I thought: ‘This is it! This is my path’.”
The Southwest London lifestyle was thrilling. At first.
“Life was manic. We were kids with lots of money in the city that welcomes everything excessive: parties, nightclubs, shopping. I worked Monday through Friday: 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., partied all weekend long, was hungover all Sunday, then Monday it would start all over again.
The temptation for addiction was everywhere.”
The Golden Age of banking died with the financial crisis, and Fabian felt he had missed the real thing.
“I enjoyed the scene for the first two years, but soon realized it wasn’t as glamorous as the employer branders portray. You sit in front of ten screens and look at the same numbers every day. You get paid a lot, but it never really seems enough. That whole life was cool in the beginning; but I gradually started feeling quite empty, soulless almost.”
Fabian felt he wasn’t on the right path at all. Impulsive and driven, he tore open his next idea.
“I make decisions really quickly, so I decided to go back to acting, which I thought was my dream. Within a couple of hours, I applied for a one-year method acting course on weekends in East London and planned to quit my banking job in six months, after receiving the bonus.”
Fabian started different projects while still working seven to seven, acting in the evenings, then going to school every weekend. It was a never-ending cycle.
“That was probably the most intense time of my life, but I felt I was moving toward a new goal. I quit my job in March 2014, and threw myself completely into acting. I actually used more of my business experience than my acting talent since it became clear that coming out as an artist is not about talent; it’s about branding: who you’re going to become, with whom you’re hanging out, your social media following...”
Fabian knew he needed to network.
“I understood it’s not the directors who have the real power; it’s those who handle the money. So I started seeking out and connecting with the right producers who hung out at nightclubs like The Box and Soho House. Partying with them became part of my job. But it slowly drained me. I was so exhausted; I started missing casting calls and important auditions. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so well.”
Fabian speaks of addiction and how elusive it can be.
“I never woke up feeling addicted; but whenever I went out, it was always there and I would think about it. Addiction creeps up on you without you seeing it. You fill the empty hole with artificial solutions in order to escape reality. It may temporarily make you whole, but you never really feel satiated, so you keep filling it with something else. Soon that space is stretched even bigger, and you now need to fill it with even more.”
With an agent in London and another in L.A., Fabian soon landed a role in a US feature film.
“I was sure I was on the right path. It was May 2015 and I walked out of the US Embassy in London with a shiny new visa in my passport: My career is really taking off now! I’m moving to L.A. to build this dream of mine into something real. Nothing can stop me now. I think someone sensed something from above because that’s exactly when I started feeling very, very bad.”
Fabian thought it was just stress: all that hard work and decadent lifestyle. It never once occurred to him to see a doctor. He would rest up in Sweden for a bit before flying out to the US to create a new life for himself.
“This exhaustion kept gnawing at me. It grew into bone-numbing pain and became almost unbearable. But not quite. So I just continued on with my plans and the day I returned to Stockholm, I woke up with this massive weight in my chest that it made it so hard to breathe. I rushed to the airport anyway and flew home. My parents took me out for dinner that night and the moment we sit down, I think I’m going to choke. Very calmly, I say that we need to go to the Emergency room because I can no longer breathe.”
Fabian went through numerous scans.
“I figured something was wrong but didn’t really know what. I had been moved from one hospital to another, met a host of doctors, and went through several tests. Two days later, I’m alone in my room when the doctors walk in: Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Blood cancer.”
“I am 28 years old and I am going to die.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia progresses rapidly and is typically fatal within weeks or months if left untreated.
“When I heard the word cancer, what hit me was this overwhelming peace. Serenity just filled me, and I felt harmony and acceptance for the first time in my life. A voice in my head said:
That’s it. You can rest now. You don’t have to run anymore.”
Fabian’s instinctive reaction was nothing like he ever imagined feeling upon receiving a death sentence.
“There was nothing I had to do anymore but just sit back and relax. Receiving that news was something I actually embraced.”
Fabian was quickly jolted out of that peace when the doctors said he was being put in a clinical trial with promising results: 60 to 70 percent chance of survival.
“They explained the treatment and said: ‘You will go through 900 days of chemotherapy.’ Hearing that was more traumatizing than any diagnosis. My first question was: ‘Will I be able to work? I have this film shoot coming up and I need to fly out to Scotland.’ The doctors looked at each other; then looked at me and said: ‘You are not going to be able to do anything like
that. You will be in chemotherapy for two and a half years.’ That’s when I felt complete and utter powerlessness. I could no longer see any path for myself at all. My death sentence were those 900 days.”
Fabian had numerous questions that he needed answered quickly, but the doctors spoke only about the practicalities of the treatment.
“I didn’t care about any of that. My questions related to life with cancer: ‘What does life with cancer look like? What happens when you have cancer?’ And I was met with a total unwillingness to talk about any of this. I got in touch, for the first time, with their inability to see the human behind the patient.”
Fabian then asked about dietary changes and fitness restrictions.
“I wanted to try and live my life to the fullest, so I asked about what to eat in order to maximize my energy levels and in what way should I exercise, but their response was: ‘Oh, just eat whatever you want’. I was shocked. You don’t even say that to a healthy person, so why would you say that to someone who has been diagnosed with a deadly disease? It just goes to show how way behind Western medicine is when it comes to holistic health care.”
Fabian turned to social media and wrote a post asking if anyone could help him find someone in a similar situation.
“This post was shared 13,000 times in one day! Many people talk about the moment of your diagnosis is life changing. For me, it was what happened afterwards that changed my life. Thousands upon thousands of people from all over the world sent their love and support. I could almost touch the amount of energy being directed my way.”
Deeply personal stories poured in from strangers, acquaintances, and close friends: all opening up about their experiences with cancer. Then suddenly, something opened up in Fabian too.
“What I noticed most was gratitude. Every message started with an expression of thanks, then an admission: Since I was sharing thoughts about my cancer, it was helping them cope with their cancer too. This led me to experience altruistic happiness for the very first time in my life. Real honest-to-goodness happiness from helping someone else. And I just started crying because, in that moment, my heart broke open and I realized I was always chasing this selfish idea of success, never really caring about anyone or anything but myself.”
“Suddenly, this joy came over me. Right then and there, I decided to share my story with the world. I named the blog Fabian Bolin’s War On Cancer and, thus, the journey had begun.”
Fabian’s blog became his savior, enlightening him about the power and potential of storytelling. With its therapeutic benefits, writing clarified Fabian’s thoughts and nourished his soul.
“Being diagnosed with cancer is traumatic; therefore, every cancer patient is traumatized. The numbers are startling: 22 percent of all people diagnosed with cancer develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and 25 percent become clinically depressed. Since the focus is on battling the disease, you’re left alone to deal with what’s in your head.”
Social support is another valuable coping mechanism and, by sharing his experience, Fabian helped others understand how to support him which, in turn, helped them cope as well.
“Journaling my story in real time was my strategy to deal with the disease, which helped others understand what I was going through. When people hear that you have cancer, pity is natural and instinctive because everybody associates cancer with death.”
“Many don’t know how to deal with the diagnosis. After reading my words, they understood that pity was the last thing I wanted and went back to treating me as me: because they knew that was exactly what I needed.”
Writing clarified things for Fabian and, in turn, clarified things for everyone else.
“By helping others, you heal yourself. This is the one mechanism that had the biggest impact on my mental health. My blog peaked at 200,000 readers: many, of whom have been affected by cancer themselves.”
“I can honestly say that I’ve never felt a bigger sense of purpose or meaning in my life. And I’ve never been happier. For every post I wrote, I received hundreds of responses. These became a source of healing for me.”
“I said to my mother: ‘I’m so happy I got leukemia, because it’s changed my life and I am finally a happy person.’ This lightning bolt hit me, and I thought: Can we productize what I’m feeling? I decided to build something that replicates my experience: to inform others going through cancer, invite them to share their stories, and help them find this same sense of purpose.”
Fabian turned to his closest friend and graduate from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, Sebastian Hermelin, with whom he was in Kenya as well as in London.
Fabian told Sebastian he wanted to reach people on a global level: to feel gratitude towards a cancer diagnosis and preserve their mental health. As supportive as he had always been, Sebastian was immediately on board.
The War On Cancer had begun.
Sebastian and Fabian conceptualized it, building a digital support tool for people living with and beyond cancer, facilitating storytelling on a global level and inviting others to contribute.
“We’re really on our way to making a massive change in the world. We think our War On Cancer app can alter the way cancer is being perceived and, through targeted surveys, we can bridge the gap between patients and cancer research.”
“The company has grown to 20 people, and we’ve raised 4 million euro in capital. Our goal is to connect the world when it comes to access to research and throw ourselves into the real war on cancer. Through the important data we collect, we can actually help find a cure.”
Investment banker, film actor, entrepreneur: What would Fabian say has been his greatest success?
“My cancer journey, by far. Because through cancer, I’ve come to understand who I am, and I’ve learned to become a happy person. I see value in myself now. I think that is the biggest success you can have as a person: More than getting wealthy or being successful is learning to love yourself.”
Text: Karyn McGettigan