When cancer enters your life—whether you have it personally or someone close to you does—you don’t want pink ribbons and 5K walks. You want to react in the most visceral way you can think of. And then you want answers.
That’s exactly how Yael Cohen felt when her mom was diagnosed. As she tirelessly worked to figure out the best ways to care for her mother, looked for answers to her biggest questions about treatment, and tried to find a community of support, she realized there really wasn’t anything out there that resonated with what she was actually feeling.
So, she decided to start it herself—and Fuck Cancer was born. What started out as a slogan on a t-shirt Cohen made for her mom to wear during recovery has now become a four-year-old nonprofit that has seen incredible success and brought together a passionate community of people who want to feel empowered in the fight against cancer.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Cohen (also known as the organization’s “Chief Cancer Fucker”) to talk about what she’s learned along the way.
What were you doing before starting Fuck Cancer?
I was in finance. And I really liked what I was doing; I was learning a lot, and I thought it was interesting. And then mom got sick, and none of it really seemed to matter as much.
Was it scary to leave a stable career to start your own charity, or was it exciting because this is something you’re so passionate about?
You know, it was both. And I didn’t just up and leave. The company I was working for was so good to me when mom was sick, letting me work remotely when I needed to and care for her. I didn’t just want to up and quit and leave everyone in a tough position.
So, I was working market hours. I would be off by early afternoon, and then I would go to the other office. And by the time I moved entirely over to Fuck Cancer, it was such a natural decision. We had so much momentum, and we were growing so much. It was great timing.
Why did you decide to start your own nonprofit instead of joining in the efforts of something else out there?
That wasn’t an easy decision. I spent a long time researching the space and seeing what people were doing and seeing if there was someone I could join rather than re-creating the wheel. I think often our generation gets really obsessed with owning something, starting something, founding something. But, in my book, improving on someone else’s wheel is just as big of a win—if not more.
But, there wasn’t somebody doing what I thought needed to be done. There was a hole, there was a gap in the space—and that’s what we address. But I spent a long time making sure I couldn’t join somebody else’s efforts.
And what was that gap?
It was activating the youth to participate in this conversation, activating them to engage with their parents about early detection and prevention of cancer, as well as communication. There wasn’t something that I could find that was digital and edgy and authentic, and that let people not only understand what was happening and make it easier, but also find a group of like-minded people to share the worst days of their lives with.
Everything out there was daisies and daffodils and pink—and if that didn’t resonate with you, there really wasn’t a place to go.
Over the years, have you gotten a lot of pushback for it because it is so edgy and different?
I mean, occasionally somebody doesn’t like the word “fuck”—which is fine. But we aren’t for everybody, and that’s one of the most wonderful and liberating things about us. We don’t have to please everybody, and the moment we start trying to, we dilute ourselves, our message becomes beige, vanilla. Nobody doesn’t like us, but nobody really loves us.
And right now we have such a passionate and engaged community because they have a visceral and emotional response to who we are and what we do. And that’s good enough for me. We don’t have to be the be-all, end-all place everybody goes.
Cancer is an emotional topic, especially since you’ve had first-hand experience with it. I can imagine it’s not always easy thinking about it day in and day out. How do you deal?
For the last four—almost five—years now, cancer’s been my day in and my day out. And that’s really difficult. I’m not going to lie. You share the worst days of people’s lives with them every single day, and you try to take the weight off of them. And you bear a lot of that weight.
It took me a while to figure out how to keep myself healthy from that. Especially because there wasn’t really an emotional gap between when my mom got sick and when we started this, I don’t emotionally distance myself from our community: I feel for them because I’ve been in their shoes. And at some point that’s just not sustainable.
What I do is I exercise. I found that I needed that hour a day of me time. No phone, no distractions, no screens: Just sweating it out and endorphins and cleansing the day away so I can go do it all the next day. When I first started, I was pushing through all that. I was skipping workouts and skipping social events and not sleeping because there was so much to be done, and I didn’t want to lose any of the momentum.
Then, a good friend of mine who’s actually my trainer said to me, “How do you expect to take care of anyone else if you can’t take care of yourself?” And that was when I realized that I’ve got to schedule in my health the way I schedule in everyone else’s.
Is it hard for you working as an expert in the cancer space without a medical background? Have you ever had people question your authority?
You know what: I’m not a doctor, and I don’t try to be. I’m a daughter, and that’s where my power stems from. I do what I do best, and I do what I did for my mom, which is research and care. So a lot of what we do is humanizing the experience in a way that I wish somebody had helped us do.
I spent literally hundreds of hours reading books, blogs, articles, and discussion forums, trying to understand things like, “What do I take to the hospital?” It’s not just, “What is a biopsy?” because you can look that up anywhere. It’s, “What does a biopsy feel like?” and “What can you do before and afterward to make it hurt less?” It’s, “How do you tell your mom you have cancer?” So now I’m harnessing the cumulative experiential knowledge of the community to help those to come.
One of the best examples of this happened to one of our board members, who recently passed away. The first time she was battling cancer, she was in her early 30s and she had to have a full hysterectomy [removal of the uterus] and oophorectomy [removal of the ovaries]. When your ovaries are removed, you go into chemical menopause. And nobody told her this. So she woke up from her surgery, and she was freaking out. She was very hot, she was sweating, and she thought it was an infection or fever, so she was crying and the nurses were trying to figure out what it was. And finally one of the elderly nurses walked over and said, “Honey, you’re having a hot flash.”
It’s one of those things that’s so simple, but she had to endure 20 minutes of fear and pain because nobody told her. Because your doctors are concerned with fixing your body, they forget about your heart and your mind and your soul and your relationships and all of those other things that make us human. Those are all affected by cancer, too.
So, no, I think one of my greatest strengths is that I’m not a doctor. I’m going to let your doctors do their jobs, and I’m going to help you by doing mine.
What do you think has been the most important thing you’ve done that’s made Fuck Cancer a success?
I think we listened. We didn’t build what we wanted to build—we built what our community wanted us to build. Instead doing the things we wanted to do that are cool and edgy and groundbreaking or get press, we build for our community, for their needs, and as we grow, they identify new needs, and we continue innovate to fill those needs as best we can.
And it sounds really simple, but it’s actually one of the most difficult things for any business or charity to do—to trust your community and let them inform the decisions for your growth.
What would you want to say to someone who wants to devote his or her career to working in the cancer space?
Identify your passion first and then—if cancer’s what you want to tackle—identify the way that’s most authentic for you to do that, whether it’s from a medical perspective or an emotional perspective or a tech perspective. Doing what makes you most happy and not what you feel like you should be doing. Because ultimately, if you don’t love what you’re doing—especially in a space like the cancer space—it’s not going to last long because it’s tough work, it’s emotional work.