Alice Kahrmann talks to Fabian Bolin, co-founder of social network, War On Cancer.

Cancer - six letters, one word, innocuous enough, 38.5 percent of the world’s population will get it at some time in their lives, and yet for an illness that affects so many, why is it the illness trails negative associations like tin cans? That’s what Fabian Bolin asked himself back in 2015 when he had just left a successful career in the city, jaded by the bright lights and bravado, he had set his heart on returning to his first passion - acting, ‘When you surround yourself with a lot of business minded people you forget about your dreams after a while, that’s what happened to me anyway’.

It wasn't until the 6’4 viking quit his lucrative role in The City, retrained as a method actor in London and was swiftly cast in two feature films, that it dawned on him it was actually happening, ‘I was living my dream,’ he smiles, then pauses. ‘That was around the time that I started feeling tired. A month later I was diagnosed with leukaemia.’ It started as a pain in his chest, ‘I couldn’t really breathe, it turned out that was a tumour growing there. The doctors told me it would be a two and a half year treatment.’ (Bolin is still in the process, taking chemo tablets every day, although he is in remission). There it was, everything ceased, ‘I was in a shock state,’ he says with a certain detachment. ‘I wasn’t sad, I was just thinking, well this is shit! What I really thought was what’s going to happen with my career?’ But what does one do when faced with a new schedule? One of chemo, doctor’s appointments like a second job? If you’re Fabian Bolin you certainly don’t lie back and let it beat you.

You set up a blog with co-founder Sebastian Hermelin in May 2016, ‘War On Cancer, at first just a simple Wordpress, a portal to vent, to connect with others going through the same trials, but quickly, faster than you could have imagined it gains traction, you realise there is something in this, maybe it could be more than just a loose aggregator, a diary like series of entries charting progress. Maybe it could be the first step in a battle, a battle that could help win a war.

The blog continues to grow. A single post is shared on Facebook over thirteen thousand times. You maintain a rigorous schedule of chemo alongside regular updates. ‘You see a lot of stories about research, but not about what it’s really like to live through it,’ Bolin says. ‘I wanted to find a guy my age who had been through leukaemia but I couldn’t find anything.’ What if WOC could be a global portal he thinks, challenging the negative associations of the disease? What if the millions of people affected could talk to each other, broker solutions, trade medical information, advice on treatment? Or just moral support?

‘Everything stops when you have cancer,’ Bolin says of the experience from Stockholm where he is now living, right at the heart of startup land. ‘I had this moment when I was sure I was going to die, and it was actually quite a peaceful moment which is something I’ve gone back to try to analyse.’ Now he is feeling stronger both mentally and physically than before he was diagnosed. ‘It made me take a good look at my life,’ he says. ‘I was out drinking three or four nights a week, I wasn’t sleeping and I was stressed all the time, those things in combination can really bring down the immune system. I don’t think it is completely random like some people claim. The way you live can seriously increase the risk of catching any serious illness, I think.’

WOC is going to be so much more than a mere blog, it’s going to be a social network that will turn every negative association on its head, make cancer sexy, make it a trending topic, instead of a dreary ‘bear through it’ charity pitch designed to tug at the heart strings. The project has gained significant momentum since Bolin tripped across mentor Moha Bensofia , a serial early stage investor, Bensofia is plugged right into the heart of the Silicon Valley / Stockholm startup scene, counting Daniel Ek of Spotify amongst his closest friends. ‘It’s one of those projects which happened by chance, in Costa Rice we say "Diós los hace y ellos se encuentran" translation: God makes them and they find each other.

For Bensofia it’s a passion project, a hobby that runs alongside the building of global brands; he is ‘the early stage guy’ currenly raising money for WerLabs, a company that disruptively innovates at the heart of personal health and the medical testing sphere, soon everyone will be able to access blood tests at reasonable prices via the Werlabs platform (expect an article on this very soon). His advice has been key in growing War on Cancer from a humble blog with significant traction into the high voltage celebrity friendly project it is today, complete with sexy wristbands and booths at rock concerts in the offing.

It is really quite moving talking to Bolin and Bensofia about the project. ‘I’m at the stage now in my life, in my late thirties,’ Bensofia says, ‘where everything I do, I need it to be about leaving something good behind’. He refers to Bolin as, ‘A guy that wishes the world was kinder for people like him, so he thinks let's make it kinder.’

Their first meeting was in the gym. ‘So this guy shows up, he’s there to lift, to throw down and this is a guy that’s on chemo. This guy’s trying to live his life like it’s no big deal. He’s trying to project that vision, half of us are going to get cancer, we can either feel sorry for ourselves, be the outcasts, the mutants or we can unite.’ Bolin has a way of galvanising people to action, making them want to find out more, do their own research. ‘The health care system if they get treated, there's no counselling or help, there’s no hand holding afterwards,’ Bensofia says. ‘You have to figure it out by yourself. I’m delusional enough to think that if we all unite we can find a cure, there is a cure out there.’

The ethos at the heart of WOC is based around accountability, half of the proceeds going directly to charity. Bensofia brought Ash Purnuri - the critically acclaimed brand builder to the project. With his sleek eye for design, Purnuri has been tasked with making cancer sexy, ‘stripping it of this pity bullshit. Making people heroes instead of victims.’

We’re not thinking ‘I want to make millions, but I want to help millions’ Bensofia continues. He reverts to the time he met Bolin. ‘What he hated the most wasn’t the chemo or the drugs or the pain, what he hated was that look of pity he got when he told his story… If a 220 pound guy feels this way, has this complex as a result of the way cancer is perceived, how is an eleven year old girl going to feel?’

‘I was on 50 pills a day, I lost all my hair, I dropped seventeen kilos in a month.’ Bolin remembers. ‘What really healed me was the idea that my story helped so many others.’ And now War on Cancer, a humble blog on the way to becoming a vast social network with all the bells and whistles, will help even more.

April 2017

Interview by Alice Kahrmann