The founder of War on Cancer, the storytelling platform for cancer patients and survivors and their loved ones, opens up about the inspiration behind the app.
Reader’s Digest: How would you describe War On Cancer to people who haven’t heard of it before?
Fabian Bolin: War on Cancer is a Stockholm based tech company on a mission to radically improve mental health for everyone affected by cancer.
War On Cancer is an app, which is a free to download storytelling platform for survivors and loved ones, where members can share journeys and stories and know they’re helping others by doing so. Members can find real authentic connection, by searching and finding people with similar diagnoses and the knowledge that they’re not alone.
It’s a platform where members are also able, within short weeks, to donate data in the form of patient-reported data which can help healthcare to better understand patient needs and accelerate cancer research.
RD: How did war on cancer begin?
FB: It goes back to four years ago when I was diagnosed [with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia]. I initially came to London to work in investment banking, however after a few years doing that I believed that I wasn’t going to be a very happy person in the finance industry so I made a pretty drastic career shift into the film industry. I have a creative background—my mother used to work at the theatre and my dad was an opera singer—so I was raised in that type of environment and thought, I want to try that out as well.
My dream, when I was younger, was to be an entrepreneur and build something real. And I came into business school thinking, I want to get the tools to start my own company. The problem with business schools is that as a student you’re heavily exposed to employee branding. The first day you’re met with two types of industry that’ll try to use for your talent and those are management consulting and investment banking. And after three years, my dreams of becoming an entrepreneur were long gone and I felt that the only way forward for me was investment banking. So that’s how brainwashed I got from my studies.
“After three years my dreams of becoming an entrepreneur were long gone”
I felt that I wasn’t being true to myself which I why I made a shift into film. And ironically I had more use of my business experience than any creative talent because I quickly understood that as an upcoming artist in any form talent is less important than branding is. The roles you get in the beginning are very much a one-liner in a big movie and you don’t even need acting skills for that—anyone can say, “Hi how’s it going”. So what’s going to make the difference is not so much what you can do, but who you know and who can help you to get those roles.
I was eventually cast in an American feature film which landed me a visa to work in the states. And I was planning that move when I started feeling tired. Initially, I thought it was related to stress and a lot of hard work, so I just kept going and going. I had a flight home to Stockholm to visit my parents, so I thought I’ll visit them and rest up a bit. On the day that I was going to fly back, I remember this huge pain in my chest area which made it very hard for me to breathe. I made it over to Stockholm and met my parents who were excited but I told them right away “I can’t breathe, we need to go to the hospital.”
We went to A&E and two days later I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. I was given a 60-70 per cent chance of surviving but I was also told that I would have to undergo 912 days of chemotherapy straight. And that realisation was traumatising. It was probably more traumatising for me than the fact I might die because for me it felt like my life was gone.
I identified with my career, so to have that removed felt like dying. The first things I asked my doctors weren’t surrounding the practicalities but, “What does life look like with cancer? What does a regular Tuesday look like? Can you work?” I was completely unable to get these answers from healthcare professionals. So I quickly understood that I had to get my answers from somewhere else, and my way of doing that was through social media.
I asked people, “Please can you help me find someone in a similar situation” because I have so many questions that I needed answering. This post was shared 13,000 times over the course of 24 hours and the following hours were a life-changing experience. Thousands of people all over the world sent their love and messages to me. I received so much support and so many inspirational stories started pouring in and not just from strangers, but also from close friends who opened up about their experience with cancer. One of my closest friends told me his sister had gone through cancer and I was shocked because I thought, why have we never talked about this before? It dawned on me that this is such a heavy subject that affects everybody, yet nobody talks about it. And what I mostly noticed in the messages was gratefulness, almost everybody was saying, “thank you for sharing this openly,” and they told me I was helping.
That led me to experience, probably for the first time in my life, altruistic happiness generated from knowing that I was helping others. It was just a weird situation because I was sitting there in a hospital gown but I was so mentally happy, so I made it my decision then to say, “I’m going to share my entire journey with cancer to the world and I’m going to name the blog ‘Fabian Bolin’s War On Cancer'”.
RD: How did the blog help your own mental health?
FB: The blog became my saviour from a mental health point of view and made me see the power of storytelling because storytelling is magical. Firstly, it was a way for me to, in real-time, process a lot of the emotional trauma that I was experiencing. You go through all the emotions, sometimes all in one day. You go from sadness to anger to happiness to joy, up and down because it’s so chaotic and in that blog, I could talk about it truthfully and openly.
The second thing was that sharing my story helped me to normalise the situation in my inner, near surroundings; so my friends, family and acquaintances got a much more casual understanding of it all. All of them read it. And when I met them on the street, instead of them saying, “Hi oh my God, how are you, I can only imagine what you’re going through”—which is how most patients are treated—they were more like, “I read your post, do you want to go for dinner?”
“It helped with the loneliness but also it gave me purpose”
That distinction for me was really important because it made me understand that I’m still Fabian, I’m still a human being. I had my identity.
It helped with the loneliness but also it gave me purpose, it gave me a sense of meaning and gave me a sense of almost gratefulness for being diagnosed, I walked around saying “I think this is my life’s mission”. I felt like the purpose of my cancer journey was to help all these people, and that became such a big distraction for me.
RD: How did the blog build into this business idea?
FB: I started thinking, What if I can replicate these experiences and make other people feel the way I’m feeling on a global level? What if we can build a product that replicates these feeling of altruistic happiness that I’m having?
So I contacted my closest friend, my childhood friend, Sebastian and I said I’m going to build something but I need your help because I don’t have the strength to do it on my own. I was so weak, I had lost about 40 pounds and I was on 50 pills a day on top of the chemotherapy. So I was not in a state of mind to create a company on my own, but Sebastian said “well I’m going to do this with you” and we started building.
RD: Do you have any business or philanthropic role models?
FB: I guess you could say two. I am very inspired by a person called Niklas Adalberth who founded Klarna, one of the biggest payment solutions. After working with Klarna for some five years, he was very tired so he sold off his entire share in the company and he’s now dedicated to helping impact companies grow. As in business companies who have a goal to make the world a better place. He believes that tech has the ability to make the world a better place and that’s something I believe in as well.
From a purely business perspective, I would say Elon Musk. We need guys like that out there who face an incredible amount of risk because it provides us with confidence that perhaps we could do the same. He’s not someone I look to become but his achievements are astonishing.
RD: What’s the best advice you’ve received?
FB: The best piece of advice I’ve received is to listen to the people who have done this before. People who are further down the line with their companies want to give back, so they’ve always got advice.
RD: What do people who don’t live with cancer misunderstand about living with cancer?
FB: Cancer doesn’t necessarily have to mean the end of your life—it can mean the beginning of a new one. Most people in this world have suffered or are suffering from the fear of cancer or maybe even cancerphobia. There’s a massive fear around it because people think it’s a death sentence and there are a lot of people who have lost many family members because of it.
So I would say to someone when it comes to cancer that firstly, two out of three patients survive and secondly many people who come out of cancer are going to come out of it a happier person. Because cancer is going to provide them with knowledge, essence and learning about life that they would have otherwise would have had to wait 10-20 more years to develop.
I want to quote Hans Rosling, the person who wrote Factfulness and has been through cancer because he said: “I wish that everybody had survived their cancer diagnosis, because it gives you invaluable lessons about life.”