[DISCLAIMER: This interview and accompanying photographs contain explicit language]
What was originally intended only as a small token of encouragement for her mother in a fight against breast cancer has caught the attention of everyone from Kid Rock to the White House. The “Fuck Cancer” t-shirt Yael Cohen made for her mom back in 2009 is now emblematic of a larger movement that emphasizes actively seeking out cancers while they’re at their most treatable and empowers members of Generation Y to talk to their parents about early detection, because, according to Yael, we have reason to believe they’re listening.
Where did the name, “Fuck Cancer,” come from?
The name came from a t-shirt I got made for my mom. Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and started to undergo treatment. After her first surgery I got her a shirt made that said “Fuck Cancer” — it was meant to be something she wore at home while she was recovering, you know, as a private source of strength. But she’s ballsy as all hell and wore it absolutely everywhere. So she wore it to get her treatment, to get coffee, to get groceries: She literally wore it everywhere.
What do you think sets Fuck Cancer apart from other cancer-related organizations?
There’s a few main things that set us apart. One is obviously our branding. We’re not daffodils and daisies, we’re a more raw and… I don’t want to say valid emotional response to cancer, but it’s honest.
Also, we don’t fund research — and that’s pretty rare in a cancer charity, finding an organization that’s actually patient-centric is really difficult. Instead, we teach people how to look for cancer rather than just passively find it. And the other thing that’s really different is we talk to members of Gen Y. Nobody talks to our generation about cancer because we’re not the highest risk demographic, and we sure as hell aren’t the largest donors. So we’re kind of left out of this huge conversation, and in my opinion we’re the biggest resource in this fight. You know, we teach our parents more than any generation ever has — how to use their Blackberries and their TiVos, whatever it may be, and they listen to us, and that’s because in our lifetime there’s been an exponential growth in technology, in the ability to share information, in education. So instead of just telling them how to turn on their Blackberries, we need to harness that sense of responsibility that we have and galvanize it into a positive change. So, teach your parents how to look for cancer instead of just find it, you know, teach them what the earliest warning signs are, things that might seem benign or highly embarrassing. Nobody wants to talk about gas and nipple leakage, but they can be early warning signs of cancer. If you don’t know what to look for, you’re sure as hell not going to find it.
What do the profits from the sale of t-shirts and other things go toward?
Campaigns for early detection — we’re more focused on early detection than prevention. My logic behind that is that I need to make this as easy as possible. So if you’re not going to change anything in your lifestyle — if you’re still going to live exactly the same as you are — I want to make sure that you at least know how to look for cancer and find it in its earliest stage. Ninety percent of cancers are curable if caught in stage one, so I want everybody finding their cancers in stage one. In later stages in the campaign, in years to come, we’ll definitely be focusing on prevention once we are sure our supporter base is solid in early detection, but right now our existing campaigns are all about early detection and all of the funds raised go toward planning and implementing those various campaigns.
Do you think that more established, research-oriented organizations tend to fall short as far as making early detection a priority?
That was part of my concern, going through it with my mom as a patient. The research seemed like such a far-fetched idea, and our generation wants to feel heavily involved, and a lot of us are skeptics by nature; if we can’t do something ourselves, we really don’t believe in it. So few of us are able to contribute scientifically, and we don’t just want to hand over our dollars — we want accountability, we want transparency. And so the idea of research often doesn’t sit well with us. I think research is very important, of course, but it’s not something that I can dedicate my life to in the same way I can to this, because I can see the effect that this organization is making, I just don’t have to take millions or billions of dollars and dozens of years. Instead of asking for money, we ask for change. If I could ask for one thing, it’s that you learn and teach your parents what to look for.
Where do you hope to take Fuck Cancer from here?
Our supporters so heavily inform which way we go. As the organization grows, we get feedback, and we see what works and what resonates, and we get requests and we go that direction. We’re never going to be a research-centric organization, we’re always going to be focusing on the changes we can all make personally. It’s hard to say where we’ll go exactly, I know that we’re always going to be teaching people how to look for cancer. Our overarching goal, my unicorn goal, is that all cancers are found at stage one, so that’s going to inform what all of our campaigns look like in the future.
Did you say your “unicorn goal”?
[laughs] Yeah, you know, that ideal!
What are some of the ways you teach early detection with the money you raise? Is it brochures and pamphlets? Are you giving talks?
We’re a long way from the brochures and pamphlets. We try to harness the mechanisms and methods of social media that have been so popular with our generation, and we just inject some social good into them. So we use a lot of humor — I think that nobody wants to talk about cancer, it’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, and that’s okay.
The U.S. has been so receptive to what we do. I always joke that I love that I go into meetings in New York or L.A. and people have heard of us and they love what we do, and I go into a meeting here in Vancouver and they’re like, “Fuck what?”
How exactly is it that the U.S. has been more receptive, and why do you think that might be?
I’ve also been really lucky with who’s supported us off the bat. We’ve had a lot of high-profile individuals and corporations support us. I got invited to the White House for this last year, and CGI, and TED, and I just got invited to the U.N. this week, actually.
Thank you, I’m very excited.
What was the White House like?
The White House was very cool; it was a fantastic call to get. The first thing I said was, “You know I’m Canadian, right?” And they said yes. And then I said, “You know my charity’s called ‘Fuck Cancer,’ right?” And they said yeah. And I’m like, “Okay then, see you Tuesday!” And it was apparently the first time they had written “fuck” on White House documents.
Breaking down barriers. Right on. So, if there are Daily BR!NK readers out there now who like the sound of what you’re doing, how could they contribute to Fuck Cancer’s success?
They can talk to their parents about early detection. They can go onto the site and they can learn about risk factors and the earliest warning signs and talk to their parents. Use that sense of responsibility to make a difference.