Cancer Dojo: beating cancer with creativity

Social enterprise wants to empower patients and increase the survival rate of cancer ‘one playful mind at a time’.

Cancer. There may be no other word that elicits such a sense of helplessness. But what if creativity in design, technology and healthcare merged in a way that turned cancer patients into active warriors in their own healing? That’s exactly the movement of empowerment that Conn Bertish is leading with Cancer Dojo.

A former executive creative director at J. Walter Thompson Cape Town, Bertish was diagnosed with a severe and rare form of brain cancer in 2006 and soon found himself in the midst of a whirlwind treatment process, facing a fear-based healthcare lexicon.

Twenty-four hours before he was wheeled into emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor, Bertish said he was confronted by a form asking him to acknowledge the potential consequences of the surgery — loss of sight, speech and life.

“This was the moment I decided I needed to play a role in my own healing,” said Bertish. “What was important was that I survived with all the faculties for what I do — creative thinking, design, art and speaking.”

So, Bertish readied his brain for surgery. “I scribbled images of my bouncy brain, preparing it to be flexible…. I visually imagined it bouncing back into shape, no matter what damage the surgery may cause,” he said.

When the surgery went well, Bertish continued his personal, creative fight against cancer by tapping into his natural penchant for storytelling.

“You’re at the mercy of all these debilitating treatments. But, through [this process] I was able to generate powerful, silly, creative stories that brought my cancer to life in different ways,” said Bertish. “I was able to take the cancer inside my brain, as well as all my multiple treatments, and imagine them into something visual that I could engage with, debunk and play a role in augmenting their effects. It was a personal, visual form of meditation that enabled me to strengthen different parts of my body.”

The secret to this “ultimate form of design thinking” is psychoneuroimmunology, the science of a body’s reactions to its mind’s activity. By taking action and engaging with his treatment, he was able to suppress the fear and depression that often come with cancer, replacing them with agency and creativity. The result? A stronger immune system and a more positive recovery.

“I started to realise that my cancer was part of who I was and that I was in control. I was bigger than my cancer,” said Bertish of psychoneuroimmunology’s power.

Cancer Dojo is Bertish’s answer to the prevailing healthcare ecosystem that makes it difficult for patients to take an active role in their healing processes. His mission is to empower patients and increase the survival rate of cancer “one playful mind at a time.”

CancerDojo_Imagine Google Hot Air Balloon copy 3

“We can enable people with a role and purpose, by helping them understand how their body reacts to different things and how their mind can have a major impact on their different treatments,” Bertish said. “As soon as they turn from patient to active participant, they’re no longer in that helpless state and their immune systems will respond.”

As inspiration, Bertish pointed to pediatric oncology to illustrate the power of Cancer Dojo’s science: “Children are these incredible natural healers. They stay loose and playful. They don’t carry the baggage like a dark cloud. They want to get better, so they’re able to bounce back better than adults.”

With leading technology companies, the creative community and nonprofits, he’s working to help shift cancer’s lexicon from one based on fear to one based on agency and creativity. If one Google searches for “lung cancer,” for example, the immediate results are discouraging enough to make any patient disconnect from his or her cancer and lose the desire to participate. But with grants from Google, Bertish is working to move Cancer Dojo imagery to the top of the search results, motivating and inspiring warriors to engage in a positive way with their cancer. He’s also been able to recruit support from the J. Walter Thompson Company, the Italian Design Festival and the Vodafone Change the World Programme.

In the coming months, Bertish said he plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to support a new mobile app that gives cancer patients content and visualisation techniques that can help them approach their illness with creativity.

“It is a globally relevant social enterprise, and I need to make it sustainable on an ongoing basis,” said Bertish. “I’ve found my purpose, and there’s no stopping me”

Entries for the 2016 CLIO Healthcare Awards opened May 16. For more information, please call 212.683.4300 or visit



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