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The Big C: changing the way the world lives with cancer

   /   Mar 24th, 2014Health

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On February 4th, the LIVESTRONG Foundation launched a pioneering initiative to “change the way the world lives with cancer.” The Big C competition is targetting a global community of entrepreneurs and innovators to create financially-sustainable enterprises that improve the daily lives of cancer patients and survivors. The competition will fund 60 total ventures, from which 20 projects will be selected for an accelerator programme. Ben Thurman caught up with LIVESTRONG’s Vice President for Communications & External Affairs, Katherine McLane, to find out more.

Ben Thurman: Can you tell us a bit about the core mission of the Foundation?

Katherine McLane: The LIVESTRONG Foundation’s goal is to improve the lives of people affected by cancer today. Many cancer organizations invest their resources and funds in cancer research, which is very important. However, an investment in research doesn’t help someone diagnosed today who’s struggling with access to care, with the daily challenges of maintaining a job, family responsibilities and emotional health while fighting a chronic disease.

Thurman: And what are the major needs of cancer patients and survivors today?

McLane: Well, it’s interesting you ask, because you will see them reflected in the categories of this competition. The Foundation has become one of the top repositories in the world for patient and survivor feedback; we conduct surveys regularly to gauge where their biggest challenges are.

We’ve found that a big one is financial. In the US with the healthcare system set up the way it is, patients and survivors find themselves sometimes in financial ruins after cancer diagnosis and treatment. So, one of the categories in the competition is “Rebuilding Financial Health”.

Another one is “Regaining Emotional Well-Being”. As you can imagine, the emotional toll of cancer can be overwhelming, and it doesn’t just affect the patient – it affects their family as well.

Thurman: LIVESTRONG reported that there are almost 2000 therapy-specific health apps but only 77 geared towards cancer. Why do you think cancer is so underserved by health innovation?

McLane: I believe it’s an awareness problem. So much attention is paid to communicable diseases – which is great – but there’s a disproportionate lack of attention to chronic non-communicable diseases like cancer. The bulk of our attention, resources, research goes into solving communicable diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria. But the very sad reality is that cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide.

I also think that not enough incentives are offered. Most of the investment in the cancer sphere goes to clinical and medical research; but there’s another side to the equation, which we hope to draw awareness to.

Thurman: And you hope to achieve that through The Big C competition.So what led you to deciding on this particular format – a competition that embraces entrepreneurship?

McLane: There’s so much energy in the innovation space and the entrepreneurial sphere completely unharnessed by organizations like ours. We tend to put all of our stock in medical advancement and exclude the brilliant entrepreneurs and innovators and inventors who might provide the best breakthroughs.

To us, it’s consistent with the approach that the Foundation has always taken: being a pioneer and embracing the next best opportunities to spur progress.

Thurman: Have you seen such an approach in the health space before?

McLane: In the health sphere I think this is still a new endeavor. So we looked to a model that also originated here in Austin: the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, which opens the doors to entrepreneurs, inventors and students to tackle significant societal challenges. And we thought, “Why not? Why can’t this work for cancer patients too?”

Thurman: What sort of outputs are you hoping for?

McLane: We’re very open, but at the same time we realize we have to give people a roadmap to navigate this competition. So we created a few examples to spur creative thinking. For example, it could be the creation of an app that helps a post-treatment survivor deal with the anxiety of a reoccurrence by creating a service that identifies and provides transportation to a therapist. For caregivers – the unsung heroes in the cancer world – we thought of developing an online tool for them to communicate their needs. Or, perhaps, a mobile medical delivery system in the developing world.

Thurman: So this will be a global competition?

McLane: Definitely. One of the key measures we’ll be examining throughout this pilot year is how to connect with a global entrepreneurial audience. We recognize that the challenges for survivors vary in different regions. In many parts of the developing world there’s a strong stigma still attached to cancer that can cause loss of job, and exclusion from family and social circles. That’s not a breakthrough that would be generated in the United States, but it could be, for example, in India or other parts of the developing world.

Thurman: Why do you think this stigma still pervades in some parts of the world?

McLane: There are still very fundamental misconceptions about the disease: myths are propagated, such as it’s contagious. There are very few strains of cancer that are contagious; but in many parts of the world it is still considered a communicable disease.

One of the reasons that we chose “The Big C” as the name for this competition is because people used to not even want to say the word “cancer”. That’s really not the case anymore in the United States: the Foundation has helped spur the transformation of cancer being something that’s whispered about to only your best friends and family, to a badge of courage that is worn very proudly. We want to see that spirit spread to the developing world, and cultures where cancer patients and survivors are wrongly stigmatized.

Thurman: It seems like a marked shift in the way that LIVESTRONG operates. Is there a recognition that social entrepreneurship has emerged as the best way to tackle significant health challenges?

McLane: Targeting this sector has two benefits. Number one, we hope to produce real-life solutions that help cancer patients recover financial health, improve their mental wellbeing, and that serve the caregivers who help them through their daily lives.

But secondarily, it also helps raise awareness in that critical sphere of the needs that exist for 14 million Americans, 32 million people around the world, who struggle on a daily basis and who would benefit from their ingenuity.

Thurman: And you’re partnering with an organization with vast experience in the field. What will Verb bring to this competition?

McLane: Yes, we’re partnering with the same team that organized, produced and facilitated Dell Social Innovation Challenge, a group called Verb. They’ve had amazing success and they’re one of the top US groups that organize competitions like this. Their team has the experience and the networks to make this a very substantial competition in terms of its reach.

The competition deadline is May 15th. To find out more, visit the competition portal.

Photo courtesy of LIVESTRONG.

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