Dave Fuehrer is the CEO of Gryt Health, creator of the most used app in all of oncology–Stupid Cancer.
Prostatepedia spoke with him about his Stupid Cancer app and about how Gryt partners with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and healthcare organizations.
How is it that you came to create an app for cancer patients?
Mr. Dave Fuehrer: Out of personal agony. I was diagnosed with cancer twice in my twenties. I went through all of the surgeries and radiation, lost my ability to be a biological father. I really struggled with all the side effects. Ironically, at the time, I managed research projects for Pfizer. You would think that if there were anybody equipped to look for help or find resources, it would have been me. But I was so full of shame, which I wasn’t able to overcome.
Three years after my second diagnosis, my father was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He passed away, and
I couldn’t continue in life being a researcher and unable to help my own family. So, I left my career at that point and have been doing this ever since.
So it’s really personal then.
Mr. Fuehrer: Very personal.
Why did you name your company GRYT Health? What does grit mean to you in relation to your own two-time cancer diagnosis, your father’s journey, and what you’re trying to do?
Mr. Fuehrer: We started out with a different company name— SC Research Ventures—because we believed that we would use research to help improve the experience of cancer. Then, we realized that we’re not just researchers, and we don’t just do something—we live it.
Our chairwoman, Shelley Nolden, is a young adult APL leukemia survivor who spent 40 days in the hospital fighting for her life. While we were coming up with a new company name, she wrote a blog about having the grit to get through cancer. We all had to find our grit, so we wanted to name our company after that shared experience. One of us looked at the other as said, “We have to spell it with a Y because there is no I in grit. It’s a team sport.”
I love that. Your first project was the Stupid Cancer app?
Mr. Fuehrer: Yeah, absolutely. We started the Stupid Cancer app more than four years ago. It was a concept to see if we could create something to help people connect.
We built a pilot beta version that we ran from 2013 to 2014. We had a quarter of a million user interactions during that year. It really showed us how significant the demand was, but that we needed to find a business model, a way to make it sustainable.
We founded GRYT to do that. We worked with the National Cancer Institute (NCI). One of my cofounders has a mentor at the Office of Cancer Survivorship, and she told us about this program called the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), and how NCI has all these wonderful initiatives. We got some amazing coaching from some of the top researchers in the cancer space.
How does the app work?
Mr. Fuehrer: We spent two years working on building something around our community, not around a specific goal. When a company does research, they decide to research this type of patient with this type of disease who is experiencing this type of side effect, and they go design the survey to do it. Then, they learn things in a very specific area. We saw that’s not how people live.
We wanted to build something around the way people affected by cancer live. We spent two years working with our community. We published a couple of papers. We’ve been at the Society for Behavioral Medicine conference the last two years presenting our results.
The Stupid Cancer app has been engineered around the way our experience of cancer affects us. We have a proprietary algorithm that looks at what your primary diagnosis is and at the stage you were diagnosed, because somebody with a Stage 1 cancer has a very different experience from somebody with a Stage 4 cancer.
We look at the treatments you’ve been on. We created this platform to help you connect with somebody just like you who knows what you’re going through without you having to explain it to them.
So, it’s a way to connect with other patients like you?
Mr. Fuehrer: Exactly, right.
Are those interactions one-on-one or are they part of a larger group, like a support group?
Mr. Fuehrer: They are both. We launched The Stupid Cancer app October 1st, and we have had 400,000 interactions since then. A little more than 75% of those are private messages one-to-one.
The other quarter interactions are in chat rooms around specific topics. We have moderators come on who are experts in an area, so the other quarter activity is around dealing with issues like depression or side effects. We have a book club. It’s just the experience of being with others.
When you create a profile, the app instantly matches you with others just like you. For me, I’m connected with other two-time testicular cancer survivors who know what that shame is like.
They ask me questions like “I don’t know if women are ever going to find me attractive anymore. Am I still a man?” These are things that are too hard to talk through in person or to even admit.
The anonymity of the app allows people to say more than they might in an in-person support group? Can you talk a little bit more about that dynamic?
Mr. Fuehrer: Absolutely. The hardest things to say are the things that need to be said the most. I’ll use myself as an example. I didn’t know if I was still a man anymore. I went from being a 20-year-old athlete to my wife leaving me because I couldn’t have kids, to not being able to perform sexually. My body parts stopped working. In those trauma moments, the things that we’re too embarrassed to say are the most important things to deal with, and they’re often not dealt with.
The whole purpose of this anonymous platform is to give you a place to say what you need without worry about being judged or someone knowing you and thinking differently of you. I’m in awe every day of the types of things people are able to explore, like women in their 30s going through menopause being able to talk to somebody in that situation without being judged. It’s life changing.
There’s no risk of running into that person later.
Mr. Fuehrer: That’s exactly right.
This dynamic comes up a lot in prostate cancer. The attitude can be: “You’re 70. Who cares if you have erectile dysfunction? Does it really matter?” To those men, it does, and it’s difficult for a lot of them to talk about it, even with their own doctors.
Mr. Fuehrer: I was excited to talk to you because prostate cancer is rare in that there are many treatment options, and the only difference is how each affects your life. You can have the same medical outcome from a couple of different approaches. Are you comfortable with cancer in your body, or do you need to have it removed? That’s personal choice, but each makes tremendous differences in your life.
Those are the kinds of things that people need help exploring because if you’re not thinking about one versus the other, you may make a decision that, six months from now, has turned your life upside down, when you didn’t expect that to happen.
Right. For most men, prostate cancer isn’t an emergency situation, so the time for them to be talking to other men with prostate cancer is before they even make that treatment decision.
Mr. Fuehrer: Yes.
Do you have many users with prostate cancer on the app?
Mr. Fuehrer: It’s not one of our larger populations. Our most active populations are people with rarer or sensitive conditions, including genetic mutations, people with advanced cancers, and rare cancers because it’s hardest for them to find anybody who relates. We find that they are the most active groups on the platform. I really care about people who aren’t in immediate crisis situations because we still have needs. My needs, for example, aren’t usually crisis. They’re more about how I want to live my life.
For people with prostate cancer, this app won’t help you make a treatment decision for tomorrow. This is a very different thing, a resource for you to anonymously figure out how this will affect you.
Right, or even the other way around. Thirty percent of our readers are support group leaders, so if each of those support group leaders went on and offered support and advice to other men, they could reach a lot of people they wouldn’t normally reach, right?
Mr. Fuehrer: I would love to invite any of those individuals to lead a chat on our app because we have users who don’t know they’re there. If any readers want to come on and be moderators, I would love to put their expertise in front of our community.
Great, how would they contact you? Directly, or should they just go on the app and mention it in one of the chats?
Mr. Fuehrer: They can contact me. Our program director, Aerial Donavan, works with individuals to set those up, and we help lead it with them.
What other programs do you offer at GRYT?
Mr. Fuehrer: Everything we’re doing at the moment is through The Stupid Cancer app, but the organizations that we work with are pharmaceutical companies, health systems, large hospitals, and healthcare organizations. My entire role is to identify resources that address the needs of people on our platform.
For example, someone in Wichita doesn’t know about all the treatment options at MD Anderson and Memorial Sloan Kettering. My mission in life is to make sure that wherever you are, you know what’s available so that you can make the right decision for you.
Have you thought at all about using it in clinical trial research?
Mr. Fuehrer: Yes. We have a partnership with a pharmaceutical company that’s running a Phase III clinical trial on a genetic mutation. We let people on our platform who have those tumor types know about this information.
One of the women with that tumor type wrote back and said she’d been asking her medical team for three years if there was a genetic sequence for her tumor, and they’d been saying there wasn’t. She wondered how the trial could be available and her medical team at her hospital say there is nothing for her. We connected her with that company, and they provided no-cost genetic sequence. It changed the whole course of her treatment.
Is there anything else we should know about GRYT and Stupid Cancer?
Mr. Fuehrer: The most important thing is connection. This is a resource for people to start. Connection is what opens you up to everything else. Whether somebody is looking for someone else who understands them, other treatment options, the people at Dana-Faber, or a way to get that information to patients, connection is what enables all of that to happen.
Also, we believe that caregivers are just as impacted as patients. This platform is not just for those diagnosed. It’s for anyone affected by cancer.
We’ve paid a lot of attention to onboarding, so when you sign up, we don’t ask if you are a patient or a caregiver.
My brother looked at our process and said: “I’m neither patient or caregiver. I wasn’t diagnosed, and I wasn’t yours or dad’s caregiver.” I realized my brother has gone through cancer alongside two immediate family members, and he doesn’t feel welcome. So, we’ve designed everything to welcome those who’ve been affected by cancer. We don’t use labels to define people.
That’s a dynamic at play in the prostate cancer world. We talk about significant others a lot, but often it’s adult children doing the research and then providing it to a parent, who then goes and gets treatment. It’s a family disease.
Mr. Fuehrer: Totally. In pediatrics, for example, it’s the parents. And it’s also the 20 and 30 year olds on the platform. And for older generations, it’s their kids—me—looking for help.