Gamifying the battle against cancer

A few months ago Conn Bertish came to see me about a work related matter. We walked down to a coffee shop a block away from my office, sat down and sipped our flat whites. The conversation unmoored from work and drifted towards cancer.

It had only been a few weeks since Cape Town’s creative community was rocked by the sudden death of Chef Bruce Robertson from leukaemia. The disease took less than four days to fell this giant tree in our forest — from the point that he felt sick enough to go see a doctor — to the moment where his body could no longer withstand the onslaught.

Bruce was a giant spirit. If cancer could kill him, it could kill all of us. And that is why all of us talked of it in such hushed tones.

Of course, Conn had his own, very personal perspective. He is a cancer survivor. A successful, charismatic creative director whose life was changed the day he was taking a message on the phone for his wife and realising that for the life of him he couldn’t write the digit 8. That, combined with occasional stumbling and slurring speech compelled him to make an appointment with a doctor that brought him face to face with Mickey. The ping-pong ball sized tumour with which Conn’s brain had to share his skull cavity.

Mickey. The ping-pong ball sized tumour lodged in Conn’s skull cavity.

On that day Conn started a battle with cancer that he won. A battle that he won by throwing everything at Mickey that was at his disposal. Radiation therapy. Chemotherapy. His spirit.

And a sizeable spirit it is. Conn is a Bertish. And the Bertish brothers are known for taking on big amorphous challenges and beating them. Conn’s brother, Chris, is a well-known big wave surfer and is currently planning a little stand-up paddle trip across the Atlantic Ocean.


Like many people in advertising, Conn is a visual thinker. During therapy he instinctively began to imagine the micro-biological bout that was taking place inside his body. He sketched drawings that would augment his imagination.

The Chemo Wash n’ Go

By pulling his mind into the battle, Conn believes he gave himself the best chance of beating this thing. He became very interested in the study of neuro-psychology. If your brain has the ability to raise or lower your immunity based on your mood, why couldn’t you use that same ability to help shrink the tumour and reduce the the side-effects of the therapy on the rest of his cells?

Before/After

This was the science behind the placebo effect — in overdrive.


Cancer Dojo

There are two things that Conn is left with as a memento to his altercation with Mickey. A little indentation in his skull from where fluid was drained from his brain to reduce swelling. And Cancer Dojo.

Conn realised that most people don’t have the visual thinking experience to gamify their own battles with a disease like cancer. So he set out to build Cancer Dojo. A multi-media platform that will aid cancer sufferers during therapy. He already has the backing of medical researchers. And the creative council of global agency network JWT is assisting him in spreading the word to help get the platform funded to help get Conn’s dojos in the hands of fellow cancer battle stars around the world.

He has been travelling around the world to spread the message. Along the way, he has left some words of wisdom.

As for the the little hole in his skull? It’s become a useful party trick that he plays on his kids’ friends when they come round to visit. His children are in on an act where they pretend that the dent is his mute button and if they press it his lips move but no words come out.

But. Based on the hope that little dent on his head represents — let’s hope Conn’s voice gets louder and louder.


To read more about Cancer Dojo, check out the Web site.
To assist in the funding of the platform,
click here.