21: Yael Cohen – How Vulnerability Can Empower a Movement
“We talk around cancer a lot but we don’t actually talk about it until it comes close to home.”
– Yael Cohen
“Authenticity” is more than just a buzzword in the entrepreneurial space — It’s essential. As creatives working to grow our personal brands and build relationships with our audiences, we have to tap into those things that we have the deepest emotional connections to. We have to be raw and real and show the world what we’re really all about — even if that means ruffling a few feathers.
My guest today is something of an expert in authenticity. When Yael’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, her family learned to cope. She made her mother — who she describes as “this adorable, polite blonde thing” — a t-shirt with the phrase “Fuck Cancer” on it, and the raw energy of those words empowered her mother to fight through recovery.
From that experience, Yael founded the nonprofit charity called Fuck Cancer. And while you might think that building a charity for cancer around a swear word is vulgar or too irreverent, my friend Yael Cohen disagrees. She fundamentally believes in the power of talking about cancer in a way that is frank, honest, and encompassing of the whole range of emotions that accompanies the entire cancer process — from fear and sadness all the way to laughter and hope.
“No one was focusing on the youth, focusing on early detection, [and] harnessing technology, and humor and all of the things that make cancer the rich experience it is. It’s not one dimensional, and we need to start treating it that way. We need to give people a different way to engage with it that’s not as scary. We need to give people a way to engage with cancer before they have it so they can learn about early detection.”
– Yael Cohen
Today, Yael wants to empower other families to deal with cancer with the same honesty that helped her family survive their darkest days. That’s the foundation of Fuck Cancer’s message, and that authenticity and vulnerability have been an essential part of their identity as a company since they were founded five years ago.
If you’re someone who wants to build an authentic brand, you don’t want to miss this episode. Yael talks about how vulnerability can empower people and give them strength in the hardest moments of their lives, and her words are inspiring. Let’s dive in.
Who Is Yael Cohen?
Yael Cohen’s whole life changed when she was just 22 years old. Her mom received a breast cancer diagnosis, and with her brother out of the country, responsibility for her treatment and care fell to Yael and her dad. At that young age, Yael threw herself into research. In our interview, she described herself as “obsessed” with finding out everything she could about cancer — from the science of how the disease works to the best things to bring to the hospital on the day your loved one has cancer surgery.
As I said before, it was during that time that Yael realized that a little bit of humor and irreverence could go a long way toward empowering someone in their fight against cancer. A simple t-shirt with the words “Fuck Cancer” on it empowered Yael’s mother to keep fighting and recovering every day. And the words went on to inspire Yael to create her nonprofit, also named, Fuck Cancer.
Today, Fuck Cancer is a full-fledged movement. It’s a place for cancer patients and caregivers to meet and become each other’s “cancer family” — there, people offer each other love and support with a raw authenticity unseen anywhere else. Fuck Cancer also focuses a lot on raising both money and awareness around the early detection and prevention of cancer. They target a young audience in the digital space to give them the information they need to teach themselves and their parents how to detect cancer early.
By the way, did you know that 90% of cancers are completely treatable if they’re detected at stage one? It’s a little known fact, but it’s true, and it’s just one of the things Yael and Fuck Cancer have been teaching the world.
Yael built her nonprofit from the ground up on the belief that authenticity and vulnerability can be powerful tools in anyone’s fight against cancer. Her work is making massive waves in the online space. Yael is a huge inspiration to me personally, and I’m incredibly excited to have her on the show today. So without further ado, let’s get into the interview.
Creating a Movement Based on Vulnerability
When Yael set out to create her nonprofit business, she knew she had to do something different. There are countless organizations dedicated to cancer research and treatment, but there aren’t many that have a direct focus on preventing and detecting cancer. Yael saw that there was a niche she needed to fill, and so she set out to fill it.
But Yael also knew that while cancer does take a tremendous physical toll, it also takes an emotional toll — and not only on the patients but on the caregivers as well. She wanted to create an online space for people to come and feel safe. She wanted to make room for people to ask questions like, “How’s your marriage doing?” in the wake of a cancer diagnosis instead of just focusing on the disease.
“That’s why people came to us. We were raw. We were real. We let them be brave and vulnerable simultaneously. We let them ask questions they didn’t think they were allowed to. We didn’t censor the experience — which is so often what actually happens — and we never told people what to say or do or think or feel.”
– Yael Cohen
There’s one idea that I really want to hone in on: Yael said, “We let them be brave and vulnerable simultaneously.” Often we think that if we’re vulnerable, we’re necessarily weak. We worry because if we reveal our true emotions and the true nature of the struggles we’re going through, people might think we’re too sad, fearful, or unworthy of notice, right?
Wrong. I think — and Yael would agree — that choosing to let our vulnerabilities show actually demonstrates how brave we are. It takes courage to speak up and say that you’re experiencing fear when you get that cancer diagnosis from your doctor. And it takes courage to let your vulnerabilities shine through in your creative work and in your personal branding.
What are you struggling with? In what areas of your life could you use more support? Don’t be afraid to incorporate your negative emotions and experiences into the narrative of your brand story — those things make you more relatable to your audience and customers. They’ll empower other people to join you, seek out your content, and appreciate your work that much more.
Language in Branding
The other thing about building a brand in the digital space is that you have to be careful and intentional about the language you choose to use. I was fascinated to talk to Yael about her choice to include “fuck” in her branding, and I was so excited to hear that the impact has been mostly positive.
“I think what we were seeing was a lot of false positivity. It was the ‘silver lining.’ You know, it was like ‘I found purpose in my pain,’ and sometimes you do — and that’s fucking awesome — but there’s so much more to it. … So we try to lead by example … and that means that sometimes what we say is not perfectly crafter or what you’d expect to come from a cancer organization …”
– Yael Cohen
The central message Yael wants to communicate to the world is that while cancer is tough, it doesn’t have to be doom-and-gloom all the time. She recognizes the importance of learning to laugh in the face of cancer. Sometimes you just need to say “fuck cancer!” to get through the day — the profanity gives the words power, and that, in turn, empowers people to attack each day with confidence.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Some people don’t resonate with Yael’s message — that’s okay. It doesn’t have to resonate for everyone. But Yael knows that it’s better to reach her small audience than to try and please everyone and ultimately reach no one.
“… People often asked us, ‘Would you change your name to be more accessible to the general public?’… And I always joke that it was the easiest answer ever: Fuck no! You know what? We may not be for everyone. And I think that’s great because the people that we are for — our community — we are their family during some of the hardest days of their lives. And the minute we start trying to please everybody, we dilute our mission and message.”
– Yael Cohen
Don’t allow your message to be diluted. You’re never going to please everyone. And if you try, you’ll end up becoming so bland and so unspecific that you’ll please no one at all.
So think carefully about the language you use in your branding. If your target audience will resonate with expletives in your organization’s name, go ahead and include them! Keep the language you use consistent with the spirit of your message, and the right community will gather around you. Your brand will grow, and you’ll be able to serve more people than you could have dreamed of.
Be a Creative Alchemist with Yael Cohen
Yael Cohen is an inspiring person. She took a painful personal experience, coupled it with her passion and drive to help other people, and alchemized those things into a powerful movement that helps countless individuals cope with cancer. I admire her drive and passion for helping others, and I love the way she incorporates her sense of humor into her work.
Yael lives inspiration in many ways, but I think her definition sums it up perfectly:
“It’s so trite to say, ‘be the change,’… but I think that we, as a society, like to applaud bravery … What I’ve learned more is vulnerability, because I think it takes so much more bravery to be vulnerable than to be strong. … So much of the time, when we’re able to be vulnerable and authentic, people around us step in and help in ways that they never would have been able to had they not known what we were going through. … One of my favorite Plato quotes is, ‘Be kind, for everybody you meet is fighting a harder battle.’ And in my work that’s especially true. … So be kind to everyone. Be grateful.”
– Yael Cohen
Yael demonstrates vulnerability, courage, and kindness in her work every single day. She truly lives inspiration, and I hope she inspires you to do the same.
Thank you guys so much for joining me on this episode of the podcast. Yael Cohen is an exceptional person, and I definitely enjoyed our conversation. If you did too, please leave me a good review on Apple Podcasts. Every good review helps new creative alchemists like you and me discover this show.
And don’t forget to connect with me on social media. I’m @nickonken on Instagram, and I’d love it if you shared this episode along with any major takeaways you had and tagged me. And while you’re at it, tag Yael, @yael, too. (And by the way, Yael was still single when I interviewed her, but now she’s married to my good friend Scooter Braun, who I also interviewed here on ONKEN Radio!)
And finally, definitely check out Fuck Cancer’s website. If you or someone you know could benefit from an irreverent, honest, authentic, and welcoming community during a cancer journey, Fuck Cancer is the place to be.
Thanks again, guys. Now get back to creating every moment. Until next time —
“We’re fucking amazing, we have access to more information than any generation ever has. We teach our parents more than any generation ever has.”
– Yael Cohen
Some things we learn in this podcast:
- What took Yael from the Finance world to the Non-Profit
- The story of learning your mother has cancer
- How courageous vulnerability of the brand, fuck cancer, empowered a movement
- The power of evoking the Why in a community
- Institutionalizing the magic: from irreverent disruptive organization to scale about structure and strategy
- Why the internet is so important to building for purpose organizations
- Where to learn to set up and manage a non-profit
- Why changing what you study over and over again is leading to your purpose
- Strategies for healthful living
- Early detection steps and why it’s so important
- How one dives into authenticity when dealing with the fight of their life
- Did you know, if a couple loses a kid to cancer, the divorce rate is near 80%
- Ways to avoid awkwardness when talking with a friend suffering from a terrible sickness
- How one, “gets over themselves.”
- How she uses self-care to set the tone for the day, meditation and intense exercise
- Why divisive branding (like Fuck Cancer) more powerfully serves a specific group
- The begetting thing Yael has learned from building the Fuck Cancer brand
- Join the Fuck Cancer community – Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram
- Learn more about David Agus and watch his TED talk
- Do the products you use to promote cancer? Environmental Working Group