How I Harnessed My Own Cancer Diagnosis to Help Kids with Cancer and Their Parents


By Hernâni Oliveira

This TEDMED Partner Blog Post comes to you from TEDMED 2020 Partner Astellas and Hernâni Oliveira. TEDMED is excited to partner with Astellas specifically around their Astellas Oncology C³ (Changing Cancer Care) Prize, which sparks new, innovative ways of caring for cancer patients and their caregivers. Hernâni Oliveira is the 2017 Grand Prize winner of the C³ Prize. His winning idea was a two-part virtual reality app to help solve common issues faced by children with cancer and their parents around education and physical engagement. Learn more about his award-winning idea here.

We know that the TEDMED Community is filled with patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals, each with ideas that have the power to improve the lives of those impacted by cancer. We encourage you to submit your idea and apply to the C³ Prize by July 15. The winners will join us at TEDMED 2020, March 2-4 in Boston, MA.


My cancer journey started when I was diagnosed with lymphoma at the age of 27. Like most people, I was shocked to hear the infamous three words—“You have cancer”— but having studied cancer as a molecular oncologist, it struck me as ironic and terrifying that now, I would experience this disease as a patient, too.

I’ve never been the type to sulk about unfortunate events. I’ve always enjoyed taking on challenges, learning about subjects unfamiliar to me, and helping others understand it as well through effective communication. So, when I saw people who struggled to find accurate information about cancer, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in health education to help people gain access to and understand healthcare information. It was during my second year of studies that I was diagnosed with cancer.

I was fierce, like all who are battling cancer and those who are caring for their loved ones with cancer. Every day brought a different challenge, but I focused all of my time and energy in between the treatments on developing an idea that I had been working on during my studies that I hadn’t yet had time to bring to life: an app to help children with cancer and their parents.

My idea was a two-part virtual reality app to help solve common issues faced by children with cancer and their parents around education and physical engagement. For the children, I wanted to create a video game for mobile devices that tells the story of a child who fights cancer as a superhero and educates the children about cancer, as well as promoting exercise and reducing anxiety during medical examinations. For the parents and caregivers, I wanted to create an educational tool so they could learn more about cancer and ways to support their children.

While working on my idea in 2017, I learned about the Astellas Oncology  Prize—an opportunity that came to change my life. The annual challenge was created in 2016 by Astellas to find and fund the best non-treatment ideas to improve cancer care for patients, caregivers, and their loved ones. I was so glad to find the  Prize because I felt like it empowered the public by widening the access to knowledge and tools to help those affected by cancer. It also helped solidify my belief that as a society, we need to look beyond treatments to truly care for people impacted by cancer.

I wholeheartedly believed—and still do—in my project, fittingly titled “HOPE,” and the impact it could have on so many lives touched by cancer. Still, I was surprised to find out I was the Grand Prize winner of the 2017  Prize. It was humbling and awe-inspiring all in one. What means the most to me is that winning the  Prize has fueled my idea and allowed me to have a real impact on people living with cancer.

Since winning the  Prize, I’ve developed a second prototype for the video game for children with cancer and validated the application for parents and caregivers in hospitals. Thanks to the  Prize and the countless hours of hard work, the final product will be available to the Portuguese public by the end of 2019. I’m also hoping to launch the application internationally and increase its impact on a global scale.

Beyond the funds I was awarded from the  Prize, I have had the opportunity to connect with a new network of people passionate about improving healthcare and am now in the process of working to bring educational programs into schools worldwide. With the support of the local community in Porto, Portugal, I’m developing an educational project to help improve cancer survivors’ reintegration process at schools. Thus far, more than 1,300 children and teachers have been trained, and we have won the best presentation award at the 4th European Health Literacy Conference.

Additionally, I was able to help establish a partnership between Astellas Portugal and University of Porto through the  Prize, which led to the creation of a national think tank focused on health literacy and innovation. The organization successfully hosted an event in May with 60 healthcare and communications professionals, patients, and caregivers, who worked together to find innovative solutions to create and foster health literate ecosystems.

Now in its fourth year, the Astellas Oncology  Prize is a truly amazing platform for anyone to showcase their idea to change cancer care and build meaningful relationships with innovators from all over the U.S. and the world. This year, the  Prize is looking for emerging and established ideas in the following categories: Cancer Care Journey, Cancer Health Disparities, and Cancer Survivorship. It will award up to $200,000 in total grants and resources, including a chance to connect with other healthcare innovators at TEDMED 2020.

I am so grateful to have been involved with the program as a winner in 2017 and now, as a judge, for the second year in a row. The beauty of the  Prize is that anyone with an idea to improve cancer care can apply—the idea can be big or small, emerging or established. What’s important is the ideas’ feasibility, originality, creativity, potential impact, and the applicant’s vision for how to reach people who might benefit from their idea—because innovative and informative healthcare tools are just as impactful for the cancer journey.

So, I encourage anyone—whether you’re a cancer patient, survivor or caregiver; a researcher, inventor or entrepreneur; a teacher, communicator, or even a musician—with an idea that could have an impact on cancer care to submit their ideas today at www.C3Prize.com. Applications are open until July 15.

Hernâni Oliveira is the founder and CEO of healthcare marketing agency BRIGHT. Previously, Hernâni was a molecular oncologist and researcher.