When Josh Hickford found out he had cancer in 2017 it felt "like a bomb going off". Just 27 at the time, Hickford not only had to undergo gruelling radiation and chemotherapy treatment, he also had to battle the feelings of helplessness that come with such a shock diagnosis.
Though he was fortunate to have the help and support of friends and family, Hickford says one of the hardest parts of his journey was not being able to easily connect with others going through a similar experience as he was.
Now in remission, Hickford has created a mobile app he hopes will help other Kiwis affected by cancer avoid that same feeling of isolation.
The app - called Ripple - provides support and information for anyone living in the shadow of cancer, whether they be patients, survivors, caregivers, whānau or friends.
Hickford is this month's Dell Change Maker. Dell and The Project have been recognising New Zealanders who have made a positive social impact in the community through the Change Maker campaign.
"When I found out [I had cancer] it was just like a massive black cloud that comes down on you," Hickford says.
"It was something you can't really prepare for...and it's a little bit hard imagining the future."
He says his diagnosis of Hodgkin's Lymphoma came out of the blue, during a routine check-up, and changed his life in an instant.
Now 31, Hickford is philosophical about his experience and realises just how lucky he is to be healthy again.
"I managed to get through it reasonably unscathed. I had really, really strong support from my family, workplace, friends and just the general community. But as I went through it I kind of realised that kind of experience might not be your typical experience for someone else going through it," he says.
Despite the fact that on average 71 New Zealanders are diagnosed with cancer every day, Hickford says it was immensely difficult to connect with people in the same situation as he was - often because charities and health boards are "hamstrung" by privacy considerations and can't share patient information.
"During my journey I didn't actually meet anyone my age with cancer at the very same time, let alone someone that had what I was fighting. And I thought this was quite strange - there must be other people in New Zealand who have it."
Eventually he tracked down other patients overseas via Facebook, but says he wished he had been able to find people to talk to closer to home.
He believes he would have felt less isolated if he had been able to connect with others his own age who really understood what he was going through - and it was that belief that sparked the idea to create Ripple.
"Once I had come out of the other side, [when] I was in remission, I had this desire to create something that could fill that gap to try and connect people who were going through a life-changing situation," he says.
Having worked as a chartered accountant, Hickford had no IT knowledge but he did have a vision of what he was after.
In order to help fund the app, Hickford took part in a number of fundraising events and even completed a half ironman, raising around $32,000 towards its total costs. The Cancer Society Taranaki Centre also came onboard to turn his vision into reality, with the app launching in late 2019.
Hickford also appeared on the TV show Survivor New Zealand to help spread the word and raise awareness.
He says the app, which is completely free, works like a social network, where people can interact with others, ask and answer questions in a number of forums, and share information.
"It's completely user-driven in terms of the information's pretty organic, it will just go where the questions are asked. And the beauty of it is the people engaging there are all generally people who have been through cancer in some way, shape or form."
As well as helping connect people, Hickford says the online nature of the app makes it easier for people to ask questions they might not necessarily ask face to face.
"Sometimes you don't want to ask your mum or your relatives a question which could be a little bit sensitive or about something that's happened to your body, but you can go onto an app anonymously and ask a question to a random person and get an answer and get more comfort from that."
Despite its success so far, Hickford says there is still work to be done to help get the word out there that this kind of support is available.
"I think the culture is still going into a centre, reading a piece of paper, a pamphlet, and a quite hands-on delivery - so this idea of having a digital support service is still quite new to New Zealanders and the uptake is still a challenge," he says.
As well as aiming to get more Kiwis affected by cancer to discover and use the app, Hickford also hopes to inspire other cancer charities and health organisations to "up their digital game" so more people can get the support they need.
"I feel like there is still an opportunity sitting there - it's only just beginning but it's just getting that spark and then lighting the fire."
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