Yael Cohen never intended to start a charity dedicated to cancer prevention, but the Vancouver resident’s life took a drastic turn after her mom, Diane, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. Cohen was 22 at the time, and the news shattered her and her family.
Cohen’s response was not to sit idly by but rather to become her mom’s caregiver, researcher, and cheerleader. Along the way, Cohen gave her mom a shirt that read “Fuck Cancer”, never imagining her mom would ever wear it in public—and never dreaming of the kind of response the slogan would draw.
Complete strangers would come up to her mom on the street and hug her, high-five her, and share their own stories of cancer and survival. The slogan is now the name of Cohen’s registered charity, Fuck Cancer (www.letsfcancer.com/ ), which operates in Canada and the United States and which she started the year her mom got the devastating news.
“People have such a visceral response to those two words together,” the organization’s CEO and “chief cancer fucker” says in a phone interview. “Regardless of whether you say fuck or not, if you’ve gone through cancer—as a patient, as a caregiver, as a loved one—you have felt that at some point even if you didn’t know how to articulate that. I think we gave people a mantra, a motto, a war cry.
“I thought it would resonate predominantly with the younger generation, but what we’ve learned over the last four years is that our parents and grandparents like to swear too,” she adds with a laugh.
Fuck Cancer has changed Cohen’s life course. She worked in finance for the first 18 months or so that the organization was getting off the ground, but then she left her job to run the charity full-time. Its key message is this: early detection saves lives. According to Fuck Cancer, 90 percent of cancer is curable in its first stage. So don’t ignore little nagging physical problems that could be your body’s way of telling you something.
Interestingly, Cohen’s mom—who is now doing well—found out she had breast cancer following a routine mammogram. She wasn’t yet 50. In 2011, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care issued new recommendations on breast cancer screening, suggesting that women aged 40 to 49 who are at average risk for breast-cancer not get routine mammograms. Cohen stays away from the controversy surrounding the guideline.
“I don’t comment on it on behalf of the charity because my opinions are very personal,” she says. “Early detection saved my mother’s life. That mammogram saved my mother’s life. So hell, yes, I’m in favour of it, but I do understand there’s a larger issue at play, and it may not be right for the community in general and for patients in general. I know we have a lot of overdiagnosing and overtreatment. But I’d rather have my mom overtreated than undertreated.”
Cohen, who’s given a TEDx Talk and has attended the Next Generation Leadership Conference at the White House, says that she’s especially excited about the communication resources the group has created for the community it serves.
“We talk to people about prevention and early detection: how to look for cancer, how to spot it,” Cohen says. “We never told people what they should say or think or feel or do, but they started asking us—not about what treatment they should take but things like ‘How do I tell my mom I have cancer? What’s my biopsy going to feel like? How can I help my five-year-old feel more in control of their treatment?’
“We’re looking more at the psychosocial, the human side. We get so obsessed with our body, but when you have cancer you forget your mind and your soul and your relationships are all affected. We will continue to build on and create more resources on topics like how do you talk about cancer? How do you support someone with cancer? How do you ask for the help you need? Cancer is something none of us are prepared to deal with. We’re here to help people through the process.”