My friend should be famous.
She might not be on TOWIE or MIC, she’s never been a Vogue cover star and her Twitter account doesn’t have that little blue tick. But when people are asked who they admire, their answer should be her.
Why? Because my friend is the bravest person I know. At 21, she had a double mastectomy to reduce the near-certain odds that one day she would develop breast cancer.
When Angelina Jolie had the surgery at the age of 38, the world commended her bravery. Stories filled the papers about her “extraordinary” decision. Facebook was awash with people saying they couldn’t imagine having to make such a decision. Women’s magazines lined up feature after feature linking body image to confidence and breasts to femininity, remarking on Angelina’s courageous choice in having this major surgery.
But this actress wasn’t the first to have this op done as a preventative measure and she definitely won’t be the last.
The NHS carries out more than 18,000 mastectomies a year (around 50 a day). While some of these are for women – and a smaller number of men – who have been diagnosed, a large percentage are done before the cancer has reared its ugly head. These are for the ones brave enough to take the test, which shows if they have the infamous ‘cancer gene’ – people just like my best friend.
Today sees the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. More people than ever before are surviving cancer, with breast cancer being one of the most researched illnesses on the planet.
But for those suffering with it, or those who choose life-threatening surgery to prevent it, it’s still a terrifying prospect. Cancer isn’t sexy. It doesn’t wear a bikini or have a St Tropez tan like the girls who took part in The Sun’s much-criticised Check-Em Tuesday Campaign. Cancer kills. Cancer leaves scars and steals family members.
We needn’t be helpless, though. One 20-something in the US set about using all the skills she had to handle a situation she couldn’t control. When Yael Cohen discovered her mum had cancer, she wanted to help. This wasn’t by running a 5km race or having a cake sale (all great ways to support the vital research taking place). She made a t-shirt that read: F*** Cancer. (Except she didn’t bother starring the F-bomb out).
She didn’t expect her mother to wear it at all, let alone wonder the streets in this defiant article. But she did, and while walking around she had strangers high-five her and others stop to discuss their own history with the disease. Yael knew she had made more than just a slogan tee.
She’s now won awards for her excellence in philanthropy, creativity and business. Her charity, named after that very first T-shirt she made her mum, aims to educate millennials via social media. It’s targeting Gen Y – us – to fight the battle that looks closer to being won than ever before.
For the first time, children really do know more than our parents, with our access to information on every topic we can imagine. It’s time to use this to the advantage of everyone. Yael recognises that no one talks about cancer until they have to, so she’s created a hub of easily-understood information for young adults to sit down with their loved ones and have the cancer talk. It’s time to “flip the switch on how we think about cancer,” she says, “from something we wait to get and pray for a cure, to something we’re actively looking for and finding when it’s most curable.”
There is something for us all to learn here. Whether it’s cancer, crime or difficulties in your career, are you going to sit on your backside and let yourself be a victim, or shall we stand up, recognise the challenges we are facing and do something about it?
My best friend stared her situation right in the face and took action. Yael Cohen refused to let her mum’s suffering kill her humour or hope. Of course, we can also look to Daniel, to Esther, to Joseph and to Ruth. Despite the hardships they found themselves in, they showed a certain entrepreneurial spirit in overcoming these.
Are you going to use the creativity and skills God gave you to change your world? If even just half of us did, imagine what we could achieve.
(The image at the top is of Yael Cohen and her mum)