This startup is tackling the hidden mental health impacts of cancer

Andreas Johansson

At the age of 28 Fabian Bolin fell ill with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. After the diagnosis, in May 2015, the investment banker turned actor was given a 60 to 70 per cent chance of recovery. “I felt like my life was ruined,” he says. “And I had a bunch of questions – not so much about the practicalities of the cancer itself, but more about life with cancer. What happens on a normal Tuesday? How should I eat or exercise to maximise the chance of survival?”

Unsatisfied with the answers he was getting from doctors, both in London and his native Sweden, he turned to social media – and his Facebook post was shared more than 30,000 times. For many patients, the mental side of cancer can be as tough as the physical symptoms: they often feel lonely, and that they can’t share their problems without overburdening friends and family. Bolin describes reading other people’s stories in the comments on his post as a life-changing experience. “We started thinking, ‘What if we can replicate this experience that I’m having on a global level?’”

In May 2016, Bolin and his friend Sebastian Hermelin launched War on Cancer, a social network app for everyone affected by cancer. It offers a safe space where sufferers can share stories, which they may not want their Facebook friends to see, with others in the same position. But it could also help accelerate the search for a cure.

“The industry has a really big problem with getting their hands on patient-reported data,” says Hermelin, who is now COO of War on Cancer. “That’s data on how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how they’re responding to treatment.”

At the same time, 95 per cent of patients are willing to share that data, as long as they understand the purpose of it. War on Cancer will make money by building tools that can allow patients to share their data quickly and easily with researchers and pharmaceutical companies, and – crucially – keep the patients informed about the results of that research. “We’re trying to replicate the feedback that Fabian felt when he was sharing his story,” Hermelin explains.

There are up to 40,000 active clinical trials at any one time, but Hermelin says that 60 per cent of them “fail miserably” – often because they can’t find enough patients with the specific type of cancer they’re aiming to treat. Right now, someone with a rare form of cancer in France could die while a clinical trial in Germany for that same disease fails due to a lack of participants. “From a patient perspective, finding a clinical trial is, in many cases, the only option at surviving,” says Hermelin.

Bolin and Hermelin are currently working on a feature that will help pair patients with suitable clinical trials, and help cut the €500m annual spend on patient recruitment across the industry. The company is also in talks with national healthcare providers across Europe to get the app officially recognised, and to secure funding to conduct research into whether using it is beneficial for the mental health of cancer patients. “If we can validate that, it gets us further down the line to turning War on Cancer into a prescription,” says Bolin. “It’s something that should be prescribed by doctors, the day you’re diagnosed.”

Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala

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