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How an insurance company made childhood cancer its philanthropic focus

Since 1995, Aflac has raised and donated more than $133 million to the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Each year, more than 15,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. The average length of treatment is 1,000 days, many of which are spent in a hospital, enduring painful treatments in an unfamiliar setting.

During this difficult period, children often struggle to voice how they're feeling — emotionally and physically. But thanks to a fuzzy, interactive friend, sharing those feelings is a little easier with the "My Special Aflac Duck" (MSAD).

Part of Aflac’s ongoing Aflac Childhood Cancer Campaign and developed by Sproutel, the duck is a smart robotic companion that features naturalistic movements and interactive technology to help comfort children with cancer.

little girl in hospital receives stuffed animal duck Four-year-old Trystan Jackson receiving her MSAD at Prisma Health in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo: Aflac)

"In 1995, our CEO, Dan Amos, was approached by a woman who was a fundraiser for Children Healthcare of Atlanta," Jon Sullivan, Aflac's Director of Corporate Communications, explains. "She was also the mother of a child undergoing cancer treatment."

After hearing her story, Amos upped the woman's initial ask of $25,000 to $3 million, pledging it to establish the Aflac Cancer Center at what was then Egleston Children’s Hospital, now known as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

As for the child whose mother first approached Amos, she's now a nurse, working at that very cancer center in Atlanta.

man poses with live duck Jon Sullivan with the real-life Aflac duck, the inspiration behind "My Special Aflac duck." (Photo: Aflac)

"Dan also challenged the independent sales team, our licensed agents, telling them, 'I’m going to put in my own money, can you match it?' Not only did they match it, but fast forward to today, independent sales agents now contribute $500,000 to the cause every month," Sullivan adds.

Since then, Aflac has raised and donated more than $133 million in the fight against childhood cancer, but the work didn't stop there.

"The 'My Special Aflac duck' is a tangible and touchable way children can interact with the duck and distract themself from the burdens of cancer treatment," Sullivan explains.

"There’s a companion app so they can mirror their medical routine with the duck. It helps them project their moods, protects them from being lonely, and has emoji cards so they can act out similar reactions during therapy or medication."

The MSAD made its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2018 and was awarded the Best in Show Award, as well as the Tech for Good award.

"Our goal is to give one to every kid with cancer over the age of three," Sullivan says. "We partner with hospitals who then distribute them absolutely free of charge."

Aflac’s philanthropic commitment is to distribute this smart companion to every child in the U.S., aged 3 to 13, who is newly diagnosed with cancer each year. So far, they've gifted more than 3,500 of the calming companions.

To manage inventory and ensure that MSAD is delivered to children in a timely way, Aflac is working with participating hospitals for distribution. Visit for more information.

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