Posted on 10 June 2015
When Conn Bertish, the executive creative director of an advertising agency, was diagnosed with a rare strain of brain cancer, he turned his creative thinking into a digital cancer initiative called Cancer Dojo.
Words Elmari Rautenbach Photographs Melanie Maré and Cancer Dojo
It all begins with the number eight. When the phone rings in Conn Bertish’s Hout Bay home one day in May 2006, the call is for his wife, Heidi. Conn takes a message and writes down the number. Glancing at his writing, he realizes it looks particularly bad. Plus he wrote 0-9-3 instead of 0-8-3. He corrects it neatly.
The 8 is still a 9. Again he writes the correct number. 9. Slowly and deliberately he forms the 8… 9.
‘That’s when ice-cold fear shot up my spine and I realised something was very wrong.’
Until then Conn would have described himself as an award-winning creative director, conceptual artist, big-wave surfer, husband and father of two young children. By the end of that week he could add another title: cancer patient.
‘I had dizzy spells in the weeks before. I would trip over things – sometimes even flat surfaces – and experience sharp headaches. But I put it down to stress; I was in advertising after all…’
Conn was diagnosed with a rare strain of brain cancer, medulloblastoma. ‘What they found just behind my right ear was roughly the shape and size of a Dunlop Pro squash ball. It messed with the two hemispheres of my brain. I could start the 8 but not cross over to finish it.’
Dr Garth Davids explains
‘Medulloblastoma is a malignant brain tumour. It originates in the back part or cerebellum of the brain and is invasive, tends to grow rapidly, and has the ability to spread to the cerebrospinal fl uid and different parts of the brain and spine,’ says Dr Garth Davids, an oncologist at Mediclinic Constantiaberg Complicating matters is the fact that it’s a cancer usually seen in children. ‘In adults, it accounts for only 1% of all brain tumours. Data available for the behaviour (and response to standard treatments) of the cancer in adults is therefore hard to come by.’
First reaction and treatment
‘Getting cancer is like being pinned down underwater by a massive wave. It completely disempowers you with fear and confusion. I felt as if there were four parts to my situation: the doctors, the cancer, the medicine and me. And I wasn’t comfortable to just be a bystander, hoping for the best.
‘When I was at my lowest point, having lost my sense of taste after a severe bout of radiotherapy, I made a list of the only things that really mattered in my life. And it came down to 4,5: my wife, Heidi, my daughter, Lily (then 5), and my son Finn (then 3), counted for three points; my mom for another; and my two brothers, Greg and Chris, for half a point – they’d be fi ne without me. ‘The list gave me perspective. It gave me the power to take action, to come up with a plan, to be “in” my treatment. And the only way I knew how was with pen, paper and my imagination…’
Dr Davids explains
‘Understandably, the diagnosis of any cancer brings to the fore a host of emotions. This is particularly relevant when you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour, as was the case with Conn. Confusion, depression, anxiety and fear are emotions expressed by many patients. For Conn, the anxiety and fear were not only related to his prognosis, but also to the prospects of treatment. The treatment for medulloblastoma is complex and usually involves surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Surgery is undertaken to relieve pressure on the brain and remove what is possible of the tumour without damaging the working brain. Radiotherapy is delivered to the whole brain and spinal cord in order to eradicate any residual tumour, and treat areas that may be susceptible to tumour spread. Chemotherapy is given to enhance the effect of radiotherapy and further eradicate any residual disease.’
‘With so many hours spent in hospitals, the only way I could play a role in my healing was to use my imagination. I started having fun with my tumour. I imagined fi ghting it, squashing it. I doodled and created a “hero”, the indestructible Bouncy Brain.
I concentrated on the back of my head where the tumour was and imagined the hair growing back so lushly it could coat a small rocket ship blasting the tumour into space. I used humour and irreverence and storytelling to connect my mind to what was going on in my body. And it worked. I became stronger.
‘When I was up and about again I continued this approach, using the world around me as a metaphorical playground for cancer-beating imaginings. In the years that followed, I went around with my paint and chalk sticks, leaving messages and signs in unlikely places – on broken poles, street signs, a ship, on the tyre of a rubbish truck: the word cancer with an arrow pointing to it; in Germany: ‘Imagine if your cancer is the Berlin wall and you are democracy’.
‘I didn’t realise I was tapping into a science called psychoneuroimmunology. It’s how your body reacts to what’s going on in your mind. I was boosting my immune system by having fun with it, debunking fear with action and intention. I was not helpless.’
Dr Davids explains
‘The field of psychoneuroimmunology is a relatively new and interesting branch of science that looks at how the brain connects to the immune system. It is a growing field, and there certainly seems to be evidence that a positive mindset and an optimistic attitude have a beneficial effect on disease outcome. There was a notable positive change in Conn’s level of anxiety and ability to cope as he progressed through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and engaged with his illness.’
Paying it forward
dojo noun (plural) -jos
a room or hall for the practice of martial arts
– Collins English Dictionary
‘During my regular magnetic resonance imaging scans, blood tests and visits to the hospital I noticed how most people disconnected from their cancer, leaving them feeling helpless and disempowered, making it harder for their systems to bounce back.
‘When I finally beat cancer in 2013, I realised how much this creative approach helped me deal with my cancer. So I’ve decided to share it with others by building Cancer Dojo, a simple mobile platform that brings the power of visual thought to life. (Find out more at .)
‘It’s a virtual dojo where creative people from all around the world will work alongside doctors and oncologists to find new ways to change the way we fight the disease. Its ultimate goal is to increase the cancer survival rate one playful mind at a time.
This is now my purpose.’
Think out of the box
Dr Tom Sutcliffe, chairman, Mental Health Review Board, Provincial Government Western Cape, on Cancer Dojo: ‘We have not embraced this approach – one of a happier, positive mindset – to serious illness because we are generally too hospicecentric, too scientific, too molecular, too therapeuticoutcomes-based in our approach to healthcare and research and nowhere near as lateral in our thinking as we need to be. I think Conn brings a lovely dimension of truly lateral thinking to this party.’
Challenge: Survive cancer
Recourses: Multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, your creative smarts, wits and imagination
Timeline: Potentially short
Client: Scared 34-year-old man with wife and two kids, bald head and freshly cut zombi scars staring back at him in the mirror Solution: Play – harder than he’s ever played before.