Yael Cohen, 25, knew she was onto something when a T-shirt she made for her mother, who was battling breast cancer, elicited hugs from complete strangers.
“The T-shirt was meant to be something [my mother] wore in private as a source of strength, but being the dynamite she is, she wore it everywhere,” Cohen said. “Peoples’ reactions were unbelievable. She couldn’t walk a block without high fives, hugs, stories and tears.”
Cohen said she always jokes “that it takes a hell of a lot for a stranger to hug another stranger in our society, and I knew we had something powerful that really resonated when strangers hugged mom. And I wanted to do something good with it. The movement grew very organically into what it is today. What started as a T-shirt is now so much more.”
The T-shirt that Cohen made for her mother after her first surgery read “Fuck Cancer.” It created “an overwhelming response to anyone who saw it,” which in turn sparked Cohen, founder of a Vancouver-based charity called FCancer, to share the message.
Cohen is on a mission to educate young people about the early warning signs of cancer and inspire them to spread the word.
Founded in 2009, FCancer is the first and only Canadian cancer charity focused primarily on early detection education, she said.
FCancer’s mission is to actively engage Generation Y (17- to 35-year-olds) and equip them with the information they need to make a difference. Since 90 per cent of all cancers are curable if detected in stage one, Cohen said she believes FCancer will save lives.
“FCancer is creating a generation of early detection ambassadors who, by learning about what to do to stay healthy, what to watch out for, and what questions to ask, are taking control of their health and the health of their parents.”
Cohen said she started FCancer because Generation Y is “the generation of instant gratification and quizzical suspicion. If we can’t do or see it being done, you’re hard pressed to make us believe. I realized that if I can make curing cancer active rather than passive, we just might stand a chance. To me, this is really positive news. It puts the power back in our hands. It gives us a call to action, which my generation thrives on.”
To date, FCancer has raised nearly $1 million. “I think it’s brought attention to itself. People gravitate to movements like ours that are authentic, passionate and transparent,” said Cohen, who was the only Canadian speaker at the 2010 White House Next Generation Leadership Conference.
Most recently, FCancer won $25,000 in the Mozilla Firefox Challenge. With the support of One Tree Hill actor Sophia Bush, the charity was able to raise more than $117,000 for early cancer detection education, making the total winning amount $142,000.
The month-long holiday fundraising contest put several celebrity-backed charities in competition to raise awareness and funds for social and humanitarian causes. Aside from FCancer, the top contenders included Seth Rogen for Hilarity for Charity, Edward Norton for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation and Jonah Hill for Nothing But Nets.
The competition was tight, but FCancer narrowly beat Rogen, who finished second by a difference of less than $5,000.
“We are so thrilled to have won the Mozilla Firefox Challenge,” said Cohen. “The really remarkable thing is that thousands of people contributed to our win, and those thousands of people helped fully fund FCancer for 2012. We now enter the new year free to dedicate every minute to creating and implementing the most revolutionary early detection campaigns we can imagine.”
Bush is on FCancer’s board of advisers. Her mother, like Cohen’s, is a cancer survivor who attributes her recovery to early detection.
“Sophia and I were on the phone screaming with excitement in the middle of the night when they put the winner title up,” Cohen said.
In targeting young people, FCancer takes a unique approach. “We talk to the youth. This is big. Too few talk to the youth about cancer because we’re not in the highest risk demographic and we certainly aren’t the large donors. This is a huge mistake. We teach them how to use their phones, program their PVR and how to balance their diets, so why don’t we teach them something that can actually save their lives?”
Generation Y has “an unprecedented sense of responsibility to teach their parents,” Cohen said. “My generation teaches their parents more than any generation ever has. Teaching is the best way to learn, so by teaching our parents, you bet we’re learning, too, and by the time we’re at the age in the highest risk demographic, we’ll be looking for cancer instead of just finding it.”
Cohen said FCancer goes online and uses “edgy, funny and provocative campaigns to break through to the media-saturated generation. This is another thing that sets us apart. Marketing is an invaluable tool to getting people to take action. Our campaigns aim to let people interact with cancer on a different level, through humour and raw emotion.”
At FCancer, “we often talk about the fact that when you’ve lost your sense of humour, you’ve really lost it all. If someone is actually interested in and excited about what they’re learning, they’re going to remember it, and share it with their network. What better way to interact with Gen Y than by using humour and wit?”
Cohen said she’s learned that the supporters with the most to laugh about are actually those who have gone through cancer themselves. “They’re sick of the pity, the sad looks, or the expectation that they’re meant to say certain things or act in a specific way. Instead of expecting them to be gracious and humble, Fuck Cancer opens up a realm which lets them get pissed off, or even find something absolutely hilarious about the situation.”
Many of the earliest warning signs of cancer are seemingly benign and highly embarrassing, Cohen said. “Most people won’t talk about uncomfortable early warning signs like nipple leakage, bloating, or painful ejaculation, but they will joke about them, which opens the door to education and conversation. To make a real change, we have to be interested and engaged.”
Going forward, Cohen said she hopes FCancer can continue to grow and educate. “We are going to be the generation that puts an end to late-stage cancer diagnosis. In the same way there have been paradigm shifts in how people perceive drinking and driving, smoking and global warming, this movement will flip the switch on how we think of cancer.”