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Swede’s war on cancer moves to a digital battlefield

One man’s blog in Sweden turned into a healthcare app to support cancer sufferers and is now expanding globally

When Fabian Bolin fell ill in his native Sweden back in 2015, the former investment banker and actor didn’t know he was about to begin a war. First came his personal battle against leukaemia, which he eventually won. But beyond that, his subsequent tech startup enterprise has made waves across the medtech scene as he continues his wider War On Cancer platform.

The aptly named app primarily serves as a social media portal for people with cancer, and for their families and friends, to share stories and experiences as part of the lesser talked-about mental health side of the disease. From there, the app has also evolved into a progressive tool that is now looking to fill other gaps in the healthcare proposition, leading to its current role as a data-driven facilitator of future cancer breakthroughs, treatment and care.

“It all started with a blog,” said Bolin, alluding to some of his darkest days during his treatment and recovery phase. “It became my own saviour from a mental health perspective to share my experiences,” he said. “Storytelling as if it were a diary, but sharing so intensely and openly that I inadvertently created a powerful tool that started being read and shared by people in a similar situation to me around the world.

“I soon realised it was helping others, and that had the most profound impact on my mental wellbeing. I’ve never had more of a purpose realising that my experiences were making people feel the way they did, and I realised that this concept could be scaled on a global level.”

Having always had an entrepreneurial mindset, Bolin got to work with friend Sebastian Hermelin to convert storytelling into a socially-driven mental health tool, and the first version of War on Cancer was launched in May 2016.

Tapping into the advent of medtech as a trend and sub-sector, the pair were soon being invited to some of the biggest healthcare conferences in the world, where, in turn, some of the biggest heavyweights in tech and medicine threw their support behind the model.

“They saw how disruptive War on Cancer could be in a clinical setting, from both a healthcare and life sciences point of view,” said Bolin.

“By uniting the world in this one app, we were pointed towards the significance of data generation, as well as the social and mental benefits we had earmarked. Real-world evidence, data, clinical trial matchmaking, patient understanding – all these parameters that traditional institutions would pay insane amounts of money to collate and organise and try to turn into tangible progression.

“We saw we could now become this dynamic provider through the ecosystem we had built and, while we are still working out how best to do this, we are excited about the potential outcomes.”

Purposeful data

This take on data’s potential is what makes War on Cancer unique, outside of its core storytelling and social function.

Traditional healthcare has often kept patients in the dark when it comes to encouraging people to take part in trials, surveys or research – the foundations of clinical data. But Bolin realised that this actually goes against human impulse, and was hindering the collation of more comprehensive datasets.

“You see it now with blood donations, for example,” he said. “People get a message when their blood has been used, telling them where it has and to what extent. It makes people euphoric to know they have helped. It’s not the data-sharing itself that they’re uneasy with, it’s the fact that they don’t know what it’s being used for or what the end result is.

“In 2020, what we’re looking to facilitate through a separate app feature called Track Your Impact is the option for individuals to contribute to different clinical trials, university studies or hospital surveys. It’s essentially a matchmaking tool where the healthcare arm has to stipulate what the data will be used for and to keep participants updated on this process, and the participants can choose at that moment whether to get involved or not.”

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In providing people with this outlet, War on Cancer is encouraging that same feeling of wider purpose and collaboration that Bolin felt when he first began writing his blog. People want to help others, and now have a user-centric platform to do so in what is traditionally a tech-unfriendly domain.

Bolin added: “It sounds odd, but it brings a sense of reason to having cancer. It’s a horrible question you’re faced with – ‘why me?’ – and this almost offers an answer, and gives people some control over a situation that often controls you.”

Filling the gaps in healthcare

It begs the question as to why traditional healthcare institutions have not explored such solutions already – but it is actually this question that informs the need for an app like War on Cancer.

For generations, the idea of in-hospital healthcare could be better labelled as survival. Doctors and hospitals are tasked with keeping people alive, but don’t always have the resources or inclination to tick off every stage between admission and discharge.

“It’s understandable that they think this way as it’s their job, but it doesn’t mean they should be so resistant to outside help or the idea of partnering with organisations that can fill in the gaps when it comes to overall care,” said Bolin. “I was being cured while in hospital, but many of the concerns I actually had day to day were going unanswered.

“What could I eat, when would I be strong enough to start doing exercise, just generally why was I feeling so down one day and then fitter the next? All of these hour-by-hour challenges can’t be addressed by hospitals for every patient, and that’s why digital platforms such as ours can be so vital.”

There are signs of progression to this end. In the UK, War on Cancer is already in discussions with the NHS to be added to its app library, a source of relevant digital tools that help to advise and care for individuals in a more personalised, relatable way.

“There’s a long way to go in general, though,” said Bolin. “When money is available for investment, it inevitably, usually, goes towards people or medical equipment before digital innovations away from the treatment table or hospital bed.

“Healthcare institutions aren’t tech companies at heart, and so they don’t have the competence or funds to build something like War on Cancer internally, but are still reluctant to look towards collaborations to fill these gaps instead.”

From gods to guides

Bolin noted that healthcare as an industry is transforming, but still needs more of a shift. It signals the need for a transcendence among medical professionals, from “gods to guides”, he said – a theory that traditional medical professionals are not always happy with.

“They don’t want to sit with patients and go through apps like guides,” said Bolin. “They just want to save lives, like gods. But that’s how healthcare needs to progress given the vast, diverse requirements that patients have – especially with something like cancer.

“By bridging the social side for mental health and day-to-day guidance, and the data side for longer-term improvements, we hope we are furthering a conversation around healthcare going beyond just saving lives, to actually making people’s lives better.”

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