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03/26/2013

Poop Strong's founder, who used crowdfunding to battle cancer, dies

Arijit
Arijit Guha is seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy: Poopstrong.org)

When Arijit Guha found out he had stage four colon cancer and that his insurance company was balking at paying his bills, the 31-year-old turned to the Internet for help.

He used Twitter (@poop_strong) to publicly shame the insurance company that was refusing to cover his $11,000-per visit chemotherapy treatments. And he joined a legion of people who are turning to a new financing tool known as crowdfunding, which allows companies and individuals alike to connect with an audience and make an impassioned pitch for funding.

On the website Kickstarter, for instance, nearly three million people have raised a collective $300 million in pledges for 30,000 projects, The New York Times reports.

Guha, who died last Friday, had a modest ambition: staying alive.

In the months before his death, Guha used crowdfunding to find an inventive way to connect with new supporters.

A doctoral student at Arizona State University, Guha had health insurance that covered his medical expenses up to a lifetime limit of $300,000.

When Guha spent all of that, he started a website called Poop Strong, a not-so-subtle rip-off of Lance Armstrong’s well-known Live Strong cancer charity. Guha used his site to sell Poop Strong T-shirts and other donated items, using the money for his cancer treatment. In the first three days following the site's Feb. 15 startup, he raised more than $20,000.

“My friend once said what I’m doing seems like the world’s most important bake sale,” Guha told The Washington Post. “It sometimes feels like this weird joke, that I’m selling T-shirts to pay for chemotherapy.”

In July, Guha posted this comment on Twitter, taking a swipe at his insurance carrier, Aetna: “@Aetna’s 4th qtr profit up 73%: ‘it continued to benefit from low use of health care.’ Helps they can ensure low use.”

Within a day, Aetna’s chief executive Mark Bertolini had agreed to cover all of Guha’s outstanding medical bills.

After that, the money raised by Poop Strong was used to support local wellness initiatives, Salon.com reports.

As Salon.com reporter Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in a touching obituary, “Guha was, in many ways, one of the lucky ones. He had cleverness on his side – an appealing communication style that wed his wit with his outrage. It’s what earned him the attention of a major insurance company, and got action where another person could have easily fallen through the cracks.”

Guha’s wife Heather posted a note on Facebook on the weekend, commemorating her husband, an Internet pioneer.

“My heart is aching," she wrote, "but the pain is eased a bit knowing that he has the support of such an amazing community of people, so many of whom have never met him. I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for all you have done for him. He is truly an inspiration (though he hated being told so), and I will be eternally grateful to have had him in my life, and to have been able to share him with all of you."

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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