Can you imagine, for a moment, bringing your mom home a gift. You've had a brilliant idea, and made her a custom t-shirt-- that bears the F-bomb. Now, can you imagine her reaction? Well, this story probably goes a little differently than you would expect. In 2009, Yael Cohen's mom was diagnosed with cancer. She was overcome with a lot of emotions and very simply stated her opinion on a t-shirt: Fuck Cancer. She gave the shirt to her mom, expecting her to wear it around the house-- instead, she wore it everywhere. The simple t-shirt got a lot of reactions and sparked an idea for Cohen: turn the phrase into an amazing charity. The focus- early detection. It's a little hard to grasp the concept, because the funds aren't going to cure cancer, they're going to teach people how to catch it before it's too late. For such a young charity, Fuck Cancer has been getting a lot of attention. This winter they won the Mozilla Firefox Challenge with the help of Sophia Bush. Cohen has also been to the White House and the UN for the charity. Read on to find out more about the organization's past, their plans for the future, and insight from the woman who started it all.
You've said countless times that you had the first shirt made for your mom. Tell us about that.
I got my mom a shirt made, after her first surgery, that said "Fuck Cancer." It was something that I thought would be a private family joke, that she would wear at home. But, I was wrong. She wore it absolutely everywhere. As soon as she was well enough to lift her arms up and get a t-shirt on, she wore that damn thing day and night. And it was people's responses that were so amazing that showed that we had something really powerful that really resonated and we should do some good with it.
That's awesome! What were the reactions?
She couldn't walk more than like 5 minutes without people coming up to her. They were hugging her and high-fiving her, they wanted to tell their stories and hear hers. I always joke about it, but it's really true; I knew we had something really powerful when people would hug her. I think it takes a hell of a lot for a stranger to hug another stranger in our society. That was when it really hit me that this broke boundaries. These two words were that powerful.
So, you weren't expecting this to go past her bedroom.
Not at all. And my mother does not have a foul mouth, she's not one of those super edgy moms. My mom is like sparkling, charismatic, kind, classy woman. I never expected her to wear it in public.
I imagine after people started seeing these shirts it caused waves. Have you gotten any backlash because of the words you chose to use?
You know, we get asked that question a lot, and the honest answer is; not as much as you would think. You know, even if you don't agree with the use of the word "fuck," most people agree with what we're trying to do. And if you've never said "fuck" before in your life, well, I apologize, but if there's a time to say it, this is it.
You've been taken a lot of great places with Fuck Cancer. What's been your most memorable experience so far?
Oh goodness. Honestly, that's so hard to say. They've all been such unbelievable moments. When you get the call or email inviting you and you think, "Is this for real? Did they make a mistake?" Obviously, the White House and the UN were insane, because those are places you just don't get to go on a regular day. And those are places I never thought I would be asked to go and talk about what I was doing. That was a really positive reaffirmation that what we were doing was on the right track and that people really believed in it. But to be honest, while those things are really exciting, it's the patients. The ones that email you photos and stories and videos telling you what you've done means to them and how it affected them. Those are the times that you just sit in front of your computer and cry. It's fantastic that people think what we're doing is important, but seeing that we're really helping people is so much more important to me.
The website shows a lot of those stories and pictures, but like you said, people come up to you in person all the time. Are there any of those stories that stand out?
Really, there are so many of those. The team has started joking that I need a sign some days that says "I can't talk about cancer today," because once you open that door, like 80% of my conversations now revolve around people telling me about their experiences and their family and whatever is going on around cancer in their life. Because in society it's not really easy to talk about those things, especially to a stranger. So, because that barrier has been removed with me, everyone and their cousin talks to me as if they've known me for years about what they're going through. A lot of those stories are insanely powerful and I'm incredibly happy that people feel comfortable enough to share with me.
When did you decide how you were going to use the funds, since you don't use it for research?
That was decided early on. Early detection is what saved my mom's life. I know research is really important, but it didn't feel like my battle. I think there are so many unbelievable people out there fighting the research battle, and I wanted to be somewhere where I could have a real, tangible impact. I'm not a researcher, so I can't contribute scientifically. And I'm not able to raise billions of dollars to find a cure. But I can reach a lot of people and teach them how to find cancer in its earliest stages. Teaching people how to take their health in their own hands and look for cancer, instead of just find it, is where I found I could have a tangible impact.
How are the funds distributed?
A small amount goes towards keeping our offices running and our salaries paid, which are all very low and fully disclosed. And then creating and implementing educational campaigns, which is sometimes a tough thing for people to wrap their heads around, because we don't dig wells or feed the homeless; we educate. So our people are our largest asset. The people who create and implement these campaigns. The oncologists and the programmers copywriters and the graphic designers. The people who make sure that what we're doing is perfectly constructed so that it's highly effective, that's where we focus our funds.
Your charity's focus is on generation Y and we're not really known for our disposable income. Sometimes going online and donating or buying a t-shirt isn't an option.
You know, exactly what you said is what we built out campaign around. I think a lot of charities are a little backwards. They ask for money to create campaigns that create change. We just want the change. If you can only give one thing to us, we don't want you to give money. We want you to give us time. We want you to learn and educate. The first thing we want you to do: have the cancer talk with your parents. We've built an entire campaign around it. The idea being that we've asked people since day 1 to talk to their parents about family history, risk factors, the earliest warning signs, and making sure they stay on top of their annual diagnostics. Most people came back and said that it's really awkward (laughs). How do you even start that conversation? So we sat around the board room table and tried to think of the most awkward conversation we've ever had. We pretty much unanimously said it was the sex talk. So the idea is that they sat you down for the sex talk because they love you and care about you and want to keep you safe, and now it's your turn to talk to them about cancer and keep them safe.
What's the most surprising cancer fact you've learned?
I think we know cancer is prevalent and out there, but learning one in two men will get cancer in their lifetime and one in three women was really shocking to me. But, at the same time, learning that one in three cancer deaths could be prevented by changing lifestyle habits was really uplifting. We want people making those small lifestyle changes that make a huge impact on your cancer risk and your overall health.
When you aren't out and about effing cancer, what would we find you doing?
I'm trying to live some semblance of a normal life (laughs). I travel a lot for work, so when I'm home, I want to cook and do laundry. I want go to the gym with my friends and have a normal life. I can't believe I've already been doing this for over two years; it feels like the blink of an eye.
The good news is you're still young-- and you've already built an amazing charity. Do you have any expectations or hopes for the near future?
This year is so freaking exciting for me. We have the most ambitious and unbelievable calendar of events and campaigns and programs filled for this year. We spent two years building a community of wonderful, supportive people who understand what we're trying to do and who are on board with us. Now we can create amazing resources and really make change. I can't even explain how excited I am. We're really focusing on communication this year. It's hard to have these conversations-- we get uncomfortable or confused and tend to either smother them or step back and just assume that they'll ask for the help they need. We're uncomfortable with asking very simple questions. We're putting together resources that are based on a one-on-one relationship that takes the stigma out of the conversation of cancer: how to support with a friend with cancer, how to support a friend whose parent has cancer, how to tell your 4 to 7 year old that you have cancer, how to tell your 4 to 7 year old that they have cancer, the simple things that we just don't really talk about.
Everything started because of your mom. How is she? Does she still have that first shirt?
She does still have that first shirt, and she's doing well. She stills wears that shirt quite frequently.
I'm getting a one censored shirt for myself and one uncensored for a friend with cancer. It's crazy, I never expected her to wear a shirt that said that, but that's the one she wants.
It's crazy how it completely changes what you're comfortable wearing. I never thought I would be comfortable wearing a shirt that says "Fuck." Ever. But as soon as mom got sick, I was like, "Oh, fuck it, that's exactly how I feel."
I think strong language was made for very strong situations. And, well, how much stronger of a situation can you get.
I think that's spot on. I mean, we are basically desensitized to cancer. We literally see cancer commercials everywhere and everyday without recognizing it. I think putting these words together helps give cancer the attention it deserves, that it hasn't been getting for a long time.