Yael Cohen tells cancer where it can go
By Deb Sperling
When Yael Cohen’s mom got cancer, she was pissed. So pissed that she made a T-shirt that expressed how she felt: “F*** Cancer.”
“It was meant to be something she wore privately at home while she was recovering,” Cohen explains. “But my mother is absolutely fearless. She wore it everywhere. She wore it through her treatment; she wore it to get coffee; she wore it to whatever she was doing.”
F*** Cancer is a message of defiance against politeness, a powerful statement that silence can be deadly. It’s also meant as a message to its followers that cancer can do a hell of a lot more damage than some four-letter word.
The T-shirt evolved into a movement that, in turn, became a registered nonprofit, foundation and charity known as F*** Cancer, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month. F*** Cancer’s proceeds—from the sale of T-shirts and other merchandise, available in censored and uncensored versions at www.letsfcancer.com—go toward prevention, early detection and education about different types of cancer and possible symptoms. It may be the best option for those who aren’t really interested in being a part of the pink brigade and have a more forthright way of expressing themselves.
Speaking with Cohen, who is based in Vancouver, even the most hardened, chain-smoking New York cynic would find it hard not to be moved to tears. Her tiny voice swells with an almost overwhelming passion when she speaks. This emotion is the heart of her movement.
“My mother is strong and beautiful and radiant and all of a sudden people would tilt their heads and actually pat her on the head,” Cohen says. “You’re fighting the fight of your life, and people are treating you like you’re a child. Everybody wants you to be happy. Everybody wants you to pretend that there’s some good reason you got cancer: It’s made you realize how good your life was or what you could be, and maybe that’s true, but at the same time it fucking sucks. It’s hard, and it’s painful and it’s embarrassing and it’s a lot of other really bad things too, and it’s OK to say that. But, as a society we don’t often want to hear that, because it makes it so much harder for us, to see what somebody’s going through.”
For Cohen, the most important defense available—the best “Fuck You!” to cancer—is early detection. “Ninety percent of cancers are curable in stage one,” Cohen explains. “We spend billions of dollars and over 40 years searching for a cure, and we’re not really that close. So why aren’t we teaching people the only cure we have now? Early detection is one shitty year, versus the rest of your life.”
To that end, F*** Cancer uses its proceeds to educate Generation Y to start “looking for cancer, instead of just finding it.” In particular, Cohen aims to motivate the younger generation to reach out to their elders, to encourage them to be more aware of risks and warning signs, to help them make positive lifestyle changes, and nag them to seek appropriate testing and treatment. “We’re teaching our parents how to use a Blackberry or TiVO or whatever it may be,” says Cohen, “so we might as well teach them something that can save their lives.”
F*** Cancer is partners with Fran Drescher’s organization, Cancer Schmancer, which targets an older generation with a similar education based mission. Cancer Schmancer also operates “Fran Vans,” which offer cancer screening and diagnosis to un- and under-insured individuals in the United States.
Based in Vancouver, F*** Cancer also has an office in New York where U.S. donors can make a donation if they wish. Cohen believes it is of particular importance to serve patients in the United States because of the lack of universal health care. “And all of our programs are don’t ask, don’t tell for illegal immigrants as well,” Cohen says. “There’s care all the way through. Why would you come in and get tested to find out you have cancer if you can’t get care? Or when you know you may be sent home when they ask for your papers in the Emergency Room?”
Cohen’s organization spreads its message primarily through the use of social media, with informational cue cards available on Facebook, and an interactive online game, which Cohen refers to as a sort of “Farmville for cancer,” is also in the works. The cue cards, in particular, help readers pinpoint potential signs and symptoms, and provide guidelines on how to talk to doctors.
“A lot of the time symptoms are seemingly benign and highly embarrassing. If you go to the doctor and get told you have IBS, you walk away embarrassed,” Cohen says. “You don’t really ask questions. You’re told, stop eating whatever foods and you’ll be fine. And by the time you go back because something is so wrong that you feel like you need to go back, it’s often much farther advanced.”
Beyond prevention, early detection and education, F*** Cancer provides a safe space for “Cancer F***ers”—people fighting cancer, plus friends, families and other supporters—to express their thoughts, feelings and stories about cancer. Users post their personal stories to a cloud on the website, where other viewers can read them at random.
“This is a place where you can say how much it f***ing sucks that you’ve lost your hair or that you can’t keep food down because of your chemo or that you miss your dad so much,” says Cohen. “It’s OK to be emotional, and it’s OK to laugh and say that you decided to shave a mohawk because you were gonna have to lose your hair anyway. You can be happy, you can be sad, you can be what you actually feel. It’s OK to have a valid emotion around us, we don’t need to be daffodils and rainbows all the time.”