Yael Cohen On Cancer, The F-Word And Her Campaign For Early Detection
Yael Cohen On Cancer, The F-Word And Her Campaign For Early Detection
It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and as members of our social networks affix pink ribbons to their profile pics and do runs and walks to raise money for cancer research, there is one cancer charity that’s rocking its own, distinct brand identity. And it ain’t pink.
Yael Cohen launched Fuck Cancer after watching her mother fight the disease in 2009 (she survived, thanks to early detection). The name of her movement came from a t-shirt she had printed out for her mother after surgery. She was surprised when she wore it in public, and gratified that the phrase "Fuck Cancer" resonated for so many people. When Cohen launched her charity, she kept the name, one that allows “people to be brave and vulnerable”.
Cohen has visited the White House, given a TEDx talk, been honoured as a G8 Youth Delegate, and listed by Fast Company as one of the Top 100 Creative People. We were thrilled to get a chance to ask her a few questions about Fuck Cancer, and her campaign for early detection.
What responses have your received to your brand of cancer fundraising and awareness? Are people appalled by the F-bomb?
I’ll start off with, we don’t get complaints as often as everyone thinks! Obviously we have an edgy brand, and it doesn’t resonate with everyone. But we really resonate with our community and that’s the whole point. We’re never going to please everyone and by trying to we would just dilute our mission and message and become beige; ultimately not offending but not really moving anyone either.
We often get asked how we function with the word Fuck in our name. Quite easily.
Using these two words together has given cancer the visceral response it deserves. This statement is inherently emotional; it’s not Fuck cookies, its Fuck Cancer. You don’t know who someone is wearing the shirt for or why they’re wearing it, so to come at someone with judgment becomes not only dangerous, but thoughtless.
Fuck Cancer is not sexual or violent; it’s defiant and defeated simultaneously. It was born from a place of my head in my hands with nothing in me left to say. And quite honestly, our name is our power. When asked at the White House, UN, or TED why we’ve been so successful only two words need to be said- FUCK CANCER. This is why we’ve caught the attention of kids and their parents alike. For the kids, we’re speaking their language, for the parents they’ve most likely lost friends or family to cancer and they truly understand these words.
Especially in October, when cancer charities are in full force, it can feel like we’re more ‘aware’ than ever. What is missing from that awareness equation?
Education! We all know that cancer exists, we’re aware already! What’s missing is action. What do we want people to do? At FC we work really hard to make sure that everything we do has a clear and simple call to action (CTA) so that people can act on the new information or emotion.
How does your charity differ from other cancer organizations?
FC is different for various reasons, but there are a few main ones:
We Don't Fund Research: While there are tons amazing organizations out there that do, I felt I could have the largest impact teaching people how to look for cancer instead of just find it. I’m not a researcher so I couldn’t contribute scientifically and I can’t raise the billions we need to find a cure, but I can teach people how to cure 90% of cancers -- find them in stage one. I’m of the generation that is motivated, quizzical and impatient. We crave instant gratification and another 40 years for a cure just doesn’t really get us jazzed. So I chose to focus on early detection.
Why focus on early detection?
The answer to this is easy; it saved my mom’s life. It’s also where I thought I could make a real difference. I vividly remember my mom’s oncologist saying we were lucky because we had caught the cancer early and 90% of cancers are curable in stage one. Pause. What? 90% is a lot. Why the hell don’t we teach people how to look for cancer when it’s most curable then??? I started FC because it was something I could do. Like I’ve said, we are 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.
Who is your target audience?
We explicitly target Gen Y (17-35). 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 largest donors. This is a huge mistake. Every kid thinks they know more than their parents, but for the first time in history, we just might. We are at a really interesting place in history where the traditional roles of parent and child have been blurred. Traditionally parents care for their children and later in life when parents are unable to care for themselves, the roles reverse. But now that switch is happening decades earlier.
My generation teaches their parents more than any generation ever has: I can tell mom there was an earthquake in Toronto 6 minutes ago whereas she has to wait for the 6 o’clock news. We teach them how to use their blackberries, program their new phone and what a Kardashian is-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, we think we know more. And in all honesty due to the exponential growth in technology, education, and sharing via social media- we just might. So FC harnesses that sense of arrogance and responsibility and galvanizes it into a really positive change, by teaching our parents. 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. 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. From something we wait to get and pray there is a cure, to something we are actively looking for and finding when it is most curable.
How do you employ digital marketing and social media?
If you want to talk to Gen Y, you have to go where they are -- online-- and speak their language. We use edgy, funny, and provocative campaigns to break through to a media-saturated generation. And this is another thing that sets us apart. Marketing is an invaluable tool to getting people to take action. Good marketing cuts to the core of how we think, act, and choose to live and makes people understand why this is pertinent to THEM. Using interruptive and unorthodox language for our campaign has allowed us to break through to an audience which has become increasingly indifferent to the noise of media that surrounds them on a daily basis, specifically in the not for profit sector. We are so cause fatigued these days, with cancer, AIDS, poverty, and a million other causes vying for our attention – what cuts through the clutter? Meaningful campaigns that resonate and make early detection personal are what will stimulate an otherwise apathetic population to take action.
How is the tone of your movement different from other cancer organizations?
A very distinctive part of our movement is that we have sense of humor. At Fuck Cancer we often talk about the fact that when you’ve lost your sense of humor, you’ve really lost it all. With a name like ours, we tend to attract some seriously feisty and kick-ass supporters, and getting them to engage with cancer in a meaningful way that resonates with them quickly became our mission. If someone is actually interested in and excited about what they’re learning, they’re going to remember it, and (even better), share it with their network. What better way to interact with Gen Y than by using humor and wit?
We’ve also found that the supporters with the MOST to laugh about are actually those who have gone through cancer themselves, or are currently fighting the good fight. 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. Laughter gives them the opportunity to express themselves and vent in a way that society doesn’t typically endorse, and by laughing and joking along with them we’re reinforcing the fact that there is no “normal” response to cancer, and that their authentic and genuine response is exactly what the doctor ordered. An inside joke at the FC office is that we’re taught not to talk about our bodily functions or swear, and fuck that- we’re going to do both. Many of the earliest warning signs of cancer are seemingly benign and highly embarrassing. 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.
When you’ve lost your sense of humor, you’ve really lost it all. To make a real change, we have to be interested and engaged. Which humor allows us do as well as to interact with cancer on a different level.
With the plethora of cancer information online, how go about making sure that you have reliable and digestible information? Who have you collaborated with to make this happen?
The Internet is amazing and terrible for looking up your illness. We always joke at the office “Don’t Google your cancer!” but it’s really true. You’ll most likely get a mix of hyper-medical results, scary horror stories and porn. We wanted to create human information and answers for a human experience. Somewhere along the way we started treating people like patients, not humans. Fuck Cancer wants to change that by giving simple, authentic information, and support to our community.
Our resources are all created in house. We have collectively read thousands of peer reviewed medical journals to create clear, digestible information. Of course our Medical Advisory Board plays an integral role in this process.
The best way to say this is:I’m not a doctor. I’m a daughter. And when mom got sick I needed to understand what was going on, make her understand, and make the best decisions possible.So I read, I read a lot. And what I found was that so much of the information out there intended to help patients was medically verbose and confusing. So I wanted to make something that my mom could have understood (my mother is a highly intelligent, remarkable woman, but having just found out she had cancer she was emotionally compromised).
Can you describe “The Cancer Talk”?
From the beginning we’ve asked kids to talk to their parents about early detection, meaning family history, the earliest warning signs, and making sure they were on top of their annual exams- but we had a lot of them come back to us and tell us how awkward it was and ask how to start the conversation. So we sat down and tried to think of the most awkward conversation we’d ever had and how it started. Pretty unanimously it was the sex talk. So we built a campaign around it- the idea being, your parents sat you down for the sex talk because they loved you and wanted to keep you safe, not because it was particularly comfortable for them. Now it’s your turn to sit them down for the cancer talk. It’s time to make sure our parents are being safe about cancer.
I saw the Funny or Die Video “Touching Ourselves”. Hilarious! Did this video come out of a contest?
The video Lisa Ling made with Funny or Die for us was the instructional video for a contest we ran with FOD called Touching Ourselves. Over that last few years I realized something quite disconcerting, people know how to talk about self exams, and probably that they should be doing them- but people don't know how to do them! So we wanted to create a campaign that TAUGHT people how to do a self-exam. We realized this was an awkward topic for most people, so instead of trying to tip toe around it we decided to make it full on weird! We launched a video contest with Funny or Die called Touching Ourselves where we encouraged our community to submit a video or script that explained how to do a self exam in an outrageous, funny, absurd or awkward situation/way. Letting people joke about something (especially something they don't want to talk about) opens the door for conversation and education. We had some really fantastic entries, some of which we can now use as educational resources!
Is there anything new initiative our readers can get involved in? Anything new you’d like to highlight?
We're running a campaign with Women's Health and Men's Health right now called Touch Yourself and I love it! It's running for month of October and is all about getting women to pledge to do a self-exam this month (or their partners/friends/one-night-stands to pledge to do one for them!). A user signs up for the app to take the pledge, then can send a collection of funny, edgy, dirty, or moving cards (if I don't say so myself) to invite everyone they've ever met to take the pledge too. One of the best features is that after you've signed up and invited all your friends, you can then see who's pledged because of you and what impact you've made on helping someone find cancer early - when 98% of breast cancers are curable. I love that you can actually measure your impact!