I survived brain cancer. Now I make people harder to kill

 
 
 

Conn Bertish has made fear his friend. He’s worked in high-pressure environments as a creative director, driving award-winning, global campaigns. But in 2006, Bertish faced a terror unlike any other – brain cancer. When doctors discovered a tumour, he had to undergo emergency surgery. Bertish died on the operating table. Though surgeons resuscitated him, it was only the beginning of his ordeal with cancer. He had a choice: to either let the disease consume him, or approach it like any other challenge. Bertish chose to put his creativity to the test.

The fear of cancer itself is debilitating, with up to a third of people falling into depression after their diagnosis. Traditional medicine doesn’t give patients a role in their recovery. They may feel helpless, weak. Not Bertish. Throughout his treatment, he harnessed his imagination to visualise his way to strength. Even in hospital, Bertish sketched out images and phrases that depicted the cancer cells withering under the effects of chemotherapy and radiation. “I dealt with my cancer by literally diving into my fear, and getting involved in becoming part of it,” he says. As he put pen to paper, Bertish found himself strengthening his immune system and building resistance to the disease’s effects.

Seven years after his diagnosis, doctors declared Bertish cancer-free. They encouraged him to share his technique, which is based on the study of psychoneuroimmunology – the effect of the mind on the body. Using the principles of this research, Bertish created Cancer Dojo, a mobile app that provides tools to increase resilience. A series of activities, guidance, and art on the platform encourages users to alter their thinking and actively engage with their healing. The app’s design is centred around the simple but powerful approach of imagining your cancer as something you can take on – by drawing it, naming it, and tackling it with doodles.

Bertish’s app has united people affected by cancer around the world. “Supportive communities build stronger immune systems,” he says. Innovations like these humanise medicine. Dealing with the disease becomes less cold, less scary. “By being creative, we can always find a way to engage with something in a different and refreshing way,” Bertish says. His philosophy is pertinent to myriad aspects of life, whether it’s depression or failed relationships. Positivity helps us become happier, stronger, more resilient. And in Bertish’s case, harder to kill.