With a pencil in hand and a blank sheet of paper in front of him, 10-year-old Mads Hansen sat ready for his first exam in life. An exam he had in a way been preparing for since he was born. With his mother in one hand and a little handball in the other, Mads had been on a tour of one handball hall after another since he could toddle on his little legs. If his mother wasn't playing on the court, she was there as a coach - and if his father wasn't coaching, he was running around with a whistle in his mouth in the middle of the court. Now, Mads was ready to take an extra step into the association culture that both he and his parents loved. Mads wanted to be a referee.

With a large amount of confidence, a lot of support, and only a little bit of help, Mads managed to become the youngest handball referee ever. At least that's what the diploma from Guinness World Records says, which still hangs on the wall at Mads' parents' home.

Ten years old and now with a referee card in hand. Still completely unaware that the extra card one day would help Mads back to life again.

Photo: Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com

“A cortado, please," says Mads over the counter.

The coffee is carefully swirled around in the small espresso cup before the first sip of the black velvet liquid is taken. The renowned handball referee had no doubt about the location when we were to meet in Aarhus on a sunny October day. You only need to walk a little way down Klostergade, turn into a small brick-covered alley, and then hit the white door that opens up to the historic building where Stillers Coffee is located.

"It's not just about the coffee - I care about the quality, but it's also the whole culture around it that I love."

This is only the second time I have met Mads in civilian clothes. On this occasion, he is wearing a pullover covered by a fine grayish blazer. He is on his way to a meeting for his newly started company, Cocuura. Only the white and blue Adidas jacket, which now hangs over the back of the small wooden chair, is associated with the many national and international handball courts where Mads has so often blown the whistle to start and end a game.

"It's the coffee that makes you alert, but it's the presence and environment that keeps you going," points out the talented handball referee.

Mads' quick remark makes me think of the last time I met him, and he told me:

"It's the medicine that made me physically better, there's no doubt about it, but it's everything else that gave me my life back."

The coffee disappears quickly in the small espresso cup. And even though a deep gaze into the last dark coffee residue does not reflect a blank mirror image of Mads, the coffee still sends thoughts towards his own experiences - and Mads continues to tell his story.

A slow start, a cruel middle, but a good ending

"My journey was long. It started in the summer of 2011, when I probably got the viral infection that eventually became cancer. It took almost a year for the diagnosis, during which the doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. There were repeated periods where I had a lot of flu-like symptoms, and then had to rebuild myself again. It wasn't until 12-13-14 months later that I got the diagnosis, and in that period, I never really got better. So, it was really strange, but I could only see that afterwards."

Mads Hansen had his daily work at Telenor as their key account manager when the small illness periods began to wash over him. Although a small wonder slowly grew inside him, he could always brush it off with an excuse or a busy period. Until his performance on the court began to decline. Until his physical ability failed. For life as a referee is in many ways the same as life as a professional athlete, and if you want to be at the top of the field, your physical capacity must be at a very high level.

"We run a shuttle run test. You can compare it to a beep test. Such an interval test, back and forth, back and forth, and then the intervals get shorter and shorter. We are tested six times a year."

"From the different tests, I suddenly saw that my performance began to decline despite not changing my training status. The very last test I ran, back in 2012 - that was probably where I was confirmed that there was something wrong. There was damn something wrong."

In late October, just a month after the disappointing shuttle run test, Mads decided to contact the private hospital Mølholm. What was causing him so much pain? Here, for the first time, Mads was presented with something that would turn his life upside down. He had a tumor in his stomach.

A consultation at the public hospital revealed that it was a cancerous tumor and action needed to be taken quickly.

It was a death sentenxe. We were convinced that i would die

- Mads Hansen

Photo: Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com
The death sentence

"It was a death sentence. We were convinced that I would die."

The relief of finally knowing was quickly replaced by horror and uncertainty when the doctors at Odense University Hospital informed Mads' family.

"They said it was colon cancer that was so advanced that they couldn't do anything. By the time they discovered it, I already had a tumor in my stomach the size of a mini handball. They opened me up to see if they could remove the tumor, but it was tangled up in everything inside my stomach. So they had already decided that I was not going to survive. And that's what they told my wife."

The doctors couldn't remove the tumor, but a biopsy later revealed that it was lymphoma, not colon cancer, which Mads had, and there were good treatment options available. Shoulders were lowered, but a whole new reality was looming. A reality with a man and a father with cancer.

"It went from me having to say goodbye to my children to not having to. I think it reminded my family that life ends at some point. I think my son is less immortal than he would be if he didn't have a father who had been sick. But it brought us closer together."

A new scan at the hospital would show how bad things really were.

"When you get scanned for what I had, you get a PET scan, where they inject a radioactive substance into your body that attaches to cancer cells so you can see where they are. When I got the first scan, I looked like a reflex. It was from my throat, down through my stomach, down into the groin, and out under my arms - everything was glowing."

The treatment began, and although it worked and the medicine made Mads well, he was signed off work, and the referee job was put on hold.

"My treatment took place from December to March with about four months of chemotherapy every two weeks. It is during this period that I go through this tough process. In addition to chemo, I received an injection that was supposed to stimulate white blood cells - because when you get chemotherapy, you knock them down. In that regard, the doctors told me I would have joint pain and flu-like symptoms. I got the injection in my stomach, and two hours later, everything just hurt. I had pain right down to my bones."

"There are many who can't handle it. I handled everything and went through all the treatments without a break - and that was really good. When I got the scan after the third treatment, there was nothing glowing. Everything was gone. So, I could figure out that the treatment worked."

But in the last treatments Mads Hansen underwent, the side effects started to increase, and his health was challenged.

"In the end, I was destroyed by it. I was completely shattered. The treatment destroyed some of the nerve pathways, so my fingers and toes were numb. I couldn't button shirts, and I felt like I was walking on cotton. It didn't go away until 3-4 months later."

The dream of getting back on the court and being at the top of international handball again was far away.

Photo: Diego azubel
Photo: Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com


Back to reality

The treatment was finished in March. Mads was healthy, but his body was broken down. Still, Mads knew he was definitely not finished with handball. His willpower never disappeared. The will to get back to the top.

"I didn't go back to work until August-September. At first, I only had 5-10 hours. And right away, I started refereeing handball again," says Mads.

Back on the court, with the whistle in his hand and the cards in his pocket. Mads had been declared healthy, and his body had been rebuilt to withstand the pressure on the striped floor. Mads had been allowed to ease back in, starting with training matches. He tried to hide the uncertainty and caution inside. It wasn't the knowledge or running that he couldn't keep up with. It was all in his head.

"It was tough because it's us who have to make some crucial decisions and decide in the end. And suddenly, I could feel that I was getting some sympathy because I was the one who had been sick. So, it was a bit strange for a few months."

Mads never doubted whether it was the right thing to do. As an athlete, goals have always been a part of his daily life, and during his cancer journey, it was a contributing factor in getting back to the life and routine he cherished so much.

"I used handball as a catalyst to get back and used sports as a goal. I really care about sub-goals. If you have a big goal on the horizon, you must break it down into small goals and try to reach them, otherwise, you will never achieve the big one. I made a lot of use of that. That's why it was crossing my limits to get on the court, but also a release - that's what I had been striving for. I think many other people could use goals, even if they are not athletes. It could be anything, a job, a hobby, or a goal to be better socially."

Foto: Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com

As we sit there and I consider my next question, a text message arrives on Mads' phone. An invitation to referee a Champions League match between Porto and Barcelona. A dream comes true. Mads reads it out loud but quickly places his phone back on the table. He doesn't need to answer right now.

We are surrounded by the sweet smell of roasted coffee beans, encapsulated by the sound of the beautiful coffee roaster that adorns the otherwise very raw room. It has always fascinated me how people can begin to see the world change through a cup of coffee. Maybe mostly for a night owl on an early Monday morning, but sometimes the rest of us get something completely different as we move further down through the coffee.

"I haven't completely changed my life after having cancer. But one of the biggest changes has been the focus on not always having to get something back. When you and I, for example, sit here and talk. It's not because I expect to get something from you", says Mads.

Mads again draws threads back to where his entire handball upbringing started. In the volunteer work in the handball hall. In the perspective of a life-threatening illness, his way of seeing life falls back on the association culture that raised him but was forgotten through adulthood, diaper changes, and dreams of the referee job.

"Volunteering is under pressure in Denmark. We always have an expectation of getting something back. I want to do something because it does something good for others. I love volunteering, and sometimes we just drop the expectation of getting something back and just do something that does something good."

Wanting to control the uncontrollable

With a changed view of everyday small actions, Mads Hansen switched his job as a key account manager at KMD to a life as a self-employed person and went full-time in the company Cocuura in 2021. A company he started with his partner, Lena Boel. Cocuura is designed to eliminate touch phobia in the country's workplaces and institutions. Mads and Lena have created a digital learning universe that is intended to help create an open and honest culture. A place where Mads Hansen would not have ended up if he hadn't had cancer. And just that with coincidences, Mads has learned to accept and even turn the worst coincidence into a positive experience.

"I have become aware that there are many coincidences that will define our lives. When some say: 'You're lucky to have survived cancer,' I say: 'No, I just got the right medicine - that's why I survived.' So I don't believe in higher powers. But still, it probably creates a different understanding of what life is and an understanding of coincidence."

In sports, we often learn that if something doesn't go your way, you can do something about it yourself. Therefore, the uncontrollability, for an athlete who has always been in control, can be difficult to handle. And with illness and cancer, there are just many things that we are not in control of.

"You shouldn't take it as if it's your own fault that you get cancer. Because it's not. You shouldn't take that blame and then think - it's also because I went and was a little stressed - no, because that's not why you got cancer. There are just many who should see that. For many, they carry the thought that they themselves are responsible. But with cancer, there's so much that we can't control."

On the way out the door, again wearing the blue and white Adidas jacket, I manage to interject, "So you're going to referee that handball game?" And Mads will, if it fits his family's priorities - and if there are no other coincidences that change the plans.

Photo: Diego azubel

Photo: Diego azubel