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Yael Cohen

rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Yael Cohen

Founder, F*** Cancer

Vancouver

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It all started with an F-bomb. Anguished by her mother's breast cancer diagnosis in 2009, Yael Cohen made a T-shirt that spelled out exactly how she felt. Her mom wore it everywhere. Soon, requests started pouring in and a movement was born. Ms. Cohen, 25, started her own cancer-education charity, creating cheeky Twitter campaigns and celebrity videos to champion early diagnosis. So far, she has sold 10,000 T-shirts ( available in both censored and in-your-face versions), raised $1-million in donations, and was invited to speak at the White House, the United Nations and TED.

First steps

"I got the first T-shirt made for my mom as a private joke. But everywhere she wore it, she got high-fives and hugs from strangers. It takes a lot to make a stranger hug you, and I realized we were on to something authentic and raw. As a society, too often we ask patients to soften their experience for us – they wear head scarves to make us more comfortable, not for them."

The pitch

"Cancer research is well funded, but what about early detection? Ninety per cent of cancers are curable if caught in stage one. We're trying to activate Generation Y to talk to their parents about cancer screening. Our new campaign is called the Cancer Talk. Your parents gave you the sex talk – possibly the most awkward conversation of your lives – because they love you and want to keep you safe. Now it's time to do the same thing for them."

The goal

"We call it our unicorn goal: We want to bring an end to late-stage cancer diagnosis."

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Your hero

"I've had some great mentors, but the answer will always be mom. She's healthy now, but her getting cancer changed everything for me. I quit my job in investor relations last year to focus all my energy here. I'm doing what I love, and it doesn't feel like a job."

Proudest moment

"Going to the White House was surreal – definitely on the bucket list. I was one of a handful of 'Next Generation Leaders' who were invited to speak on how we'd suggest doing things in the future."

What keeps you going?

"'Be the change you want to see in the world.' It's a quote from Gandhi that I got engraved on a bracelet."

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Next steps

"This year we're working on giving people tools for communicating about cancer. It's hard to know what questions to ask, so we're preparing video, audio and written resources based on specific relationships – your parent, your child, your friend."

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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