by Falene Nurse
When you say "Fuck cancer!" out loud, it doesn't feel shocking or forced. It perfectly expresses that genuine mix of defiance and defeat to anyone who has ever watched a loved one fight the disease. If ever there was a time to use the F-bomb, it would be now. That's how Yael Cohen felt when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2009. Amidst the confusion and anxiety, these two little words made the most sense. What helped her turn fear into a ferocious battle cry would launch a whole new mission in her life.
A doe-eyed bookworm with Henry Rollins's punk-rock sensibilities and Steve Jobs's business acumen isn't exactly who you would expect to spearhead a whole new approach to the non-profit industry. Having studied political science, she already understood the policies and procedures needed. She got started (at the age of 22!) by becoming incorporated and making sure everything in her business plan would function perfectly.
As far as the philanthropic world goes, nobody knew where to place Cohen; her organization didn't quite fit into the non-profit landscape—and that turned out to be a very good thing indeed.
This South African-born (Canadian raised) girl with the small stature and delicate features proved to be a fiercely intelligent and driven individual who refused to back down to the disease, the controversy, and the criticism.
HIH: It all started with a Fuck Cancer T-shirt?
YC: Yes, absolutely. It was meant as a moral booster for my mom, sort of personal joke to make her smile. Also, as a family, how we felt towards the disease in the dismissive sense. In other words "we're gonna kick it's ass!" She's also the least likely to use that kind of language, so I didn't really expect her to wear it out. Then she wore it EVERYWHERE and the reaction was incredible! Strangers started conversations with her, there were high-fives and hugs, stories being told on the street. This whole barrier that society usually has just crumbled. It was raw, authentic and vulnerable.
Why do you think our culture feels the need to make cancer patients soften the experience for us, with scarves and wigs? Almost trying to cover up what we already know exists?
I think society feels guilty, confused and uncomfortable about cancer in a lot of ways. Mostly because we don't fully understand it and we really suck at communicating about the disease. There is a huge stigma attached to something that is completely beyond anyones control, there are a lot of questions still out there with empty responses or it becomes a very shallow conversation. And I think that needs to change, because it's sticking around and we need to know how to better communicate and support one another.
Yet we generally don't react to people with heart disease in the same way. Why is that?
I think it mostly stems from a sense of guilt, we feel helpless, don't know what to say or do.
Most of your funding goes to early detection more than research. Can you explain a little more about that?
One of the main things is we don't fund research, and in the cancer space that is rare. To be clear, I feel that research is important and very needed, but that isn't the battle I chose to pursue. That's not where I felt I could make the most impact. We all want that cure to be found and I'm all for that, but I'm also surprised that there hasn't been a larger discussion about the fact that 90% of cancers can be beaten "if" caught at stage one. The public doesn't seem to be aware of this. I don't know how we've managed to avoid telling society about this cure rate. Think about that, a 90% cure rate if detected early, that's pretty amazing.
You described this non-profit as a movement. Is that intentional?
We aren't a charity in the sense we take in money to fund something else. We are a movement, we accumulate people, and we teach and grow together. What we are is a function of our supporters. We have a common goal and we are figuring out how to get there together.
What is that goal?
It's what I call the unicorn goal, to put an end to late stage cancer. I think that all cancers that can be caught in stage one should be. The point, the hope is, that people start seeing this as an achievable goal.
Do you think there will be a cure for cancer in your lifetime?
I damn well hope so. There needs to be exponential growth in education, research and scientific discovery. If you told my parents as young children there would be cell phones and laptops, it would seem unbelievable. We don't know what's going to happen and I think it will blow us all away.
How was it talking at the White House and the UN?
It was really, really cool. One of the moments when you think "Holy shit." I guess people feel similarly to me. I guess I am on the right track with this. It was also terrifically validating for the moment and made me feel like we are going to change lives with this. I never thought I would be in that position, and the first thing I said when I got the call was, "You know the name of the organization, ok, you know I'm Canadian too right?" (laughing)
Did you ever feel that your age hindered you when you first got started?
I've worked very hard to make sure that everything I do is aligned with the core goals of the movement. If you sit with me for five minutes you know that this is all coming from an authentic and genuine place. So the age didn't really interfere with that. I truly believe in it what I'm doing and my head's firmly on my shoulders.
What is your philosophy on life?
There are forks in the road. Different decisions lead to new paths, and for me I think that you have to take risks. Good and bad, you can learn from it, but don't regret it.
How do you feel about certain groups that have been resistant?
Well obviously what we are doing isn't for everyone, and that's kind of the point. That is our strength. If I did appeal to everyone, we would have to dilute down so much of what we do. I don't want to offend, but I'm also not here to please everyone. Even if you disagree with our name, it's really hard to disagree with what we are trying to do.
How is your mom doing now?
She's doing very well, I'm glad to say. Thanks for asking.
Has social media played a big part in the campaign?
Definitely, in both the founding and the growth of Fuck Cancer. As I said we focus and talk to GenY predominantly. For the first time in history, the younger generation may have more access to knowledge than their own parents. They were born with the technology, taught and raised with it, and most kids can navigate a laptop and cell phone better than their parents. The ability to spread a message globally overnight is fascinating. The last generation was dependent on coverage and word of mouth. Our generation is much more comfortable with self-education, and if you want to speak to this generation, you have to go where they are—online.
Tell us about the Cancer Talk Initiative...
From day one, we wanted to encourage a dialogue, we wanted kids to talk with their parents about risk factors, family history, early warning signs and a lot feel awkward about doing that. So ideally this information is for both parties, yes I want the younger generation to encourage their parents to get check ups and screenings, but having our generation be more informed is incredibly important too.
We've been very lucky in the people who have chosen to support us, who have come forward and shared our message with their communities and online followers. Each celebrity was socially conscious, media savvy and also trying to live a more healthy preventative lifestyle. We don't want to knowingly put out a mixed-message, have someone supporting our cause and then lighting up a cigarette every few seconds, seems contradictory.
Would you say it was important that you took all the research, info, and knowledge and fueled it into one vehicle? Especially in a world where anyone that goes on WebMD is considered an expert?
Researching information into a concise, accessible space is very important. This generation also consumes medicine differently because of the access, we self-diagnose, we Google our symptoms and WebMD our prescriptions. That can be dangerous. We need to start looking at how we make the accurate info accessible to everybody—easily.
One of the aspects of your movement that I like is that it is a more aggressive stance. Is that warrior mentally intentional?
I'm very comfortable with defending what I'm doing, but it's definitely an active stance. I want people to feel empowered, to take action, and to feel that they have a fighting chance.