BY Fast Company 2 MINUTE READ

In 2006, Capetonian big-wave surfer Conn Bertish was diagnosed with a rare disease: Adult malignant brain cancer. For seven years, Bertish immersed himself in his illness, using everything from his stationery cupboard to create his own physical metaphoric cancer-beating world. Although he has since left his job as a creative director for brands such as Quirk and World Design Capital Cape Town, he used his conceptual background and out-of-the-box thinking that helped him win advertising awards to create Cancer Dojo, a mobile app, in 2015. The app is an innovative, on-the-go support tool for patients with the life-threatening illness and, after four years in development, launched worldwide this past February. Here, Bertish outlines his playbook for purpose-led tech.

As a former creative director, visuals have always played an important role in Bertish’s life. Through drawing, the practice of mindfulness, writing in journals, curating an exercise and diet regime, and visualising positive scenarios, he gave himself permission to dream of a future where he no longer had the illness. In the same way, his app helps cancer patients stay positive about life and works with the principle of psychoneuroimmunology, where the mind affects one’s health. For example, one activity on the app invites the patient to imagine their cancer as a ball and themselves as the baseball bat knocking the ball out of the park and leaving the cancer behind in the dust as they run towards the next base. “This kind of playful thinking helps you shift your mindset when you’re facing a challenge,” explains Bertish. “It enables you to positively engage in the process rather than shy away from it.”

Although fun and easy to use, the app’s resources and activities are all led by research papers and medical guidance. “I needed to make sure everything was based on a scientific approach rather than a spiritual approach,” says the creator. “Here I was, with my crazy idea of using creativity to enable patients with a participatory role in their own healing, so I needed to be sure the approach was entirely sound from a medical point of view.” It didn’t take long to get the medical fraternity’s stamp of approval, and, in 2016, Bertish was invited to present the opening talk at a global conference for the International Society of Paediatric Oncology. Doctors were keen to embrace what he calls his “dojo thinking”, supporting his drive to humanise medicine. The Cancer Dojo app was twice awarded a grant from Vodacom during its development phase, allowing Bertish to delve into research, create his website and branding, and start generating content in collaboration with almost 20 creative agencies around the world.

“Cancer Dojo is not proposing to be a cure for cancer,” says Bertish. “But it helps to build resiliency, which strengthens the immune system and makes you harder to kill.” This goes for in-app and real life. Through 16 themed levels, a patient engages with their illness and powers through their treatments without dwelling on the negatives. Users of the app are required to listen to voice notes and upbeat songs, watch videos, solve word games, tackle to-do lists, read articles, and doodle their progress as they move closer to natural healing. “It’s like a cancer coach in your pocket,” smiles Bertish.

Article originally appeared in Fast Company SA October/November issue.