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Founder of “Rethink Breast Cancer” MJ DeCoteau has used t-shirts, videos and the internet to turn her fundraising into a fashionable cause

MJ DeCoteau has built Rethink Breast Cancer into a formidable not-for-profit organization in large part through the creative use of the media.

Story by: Marissa Stapley Ponikowski | Photography by: Arkan Zakharov

MJ (Mary-Jo) DeCoteau is leaning against a soaring pink wall stenciled with inspiration. The Rethink Breast Cancer executive director smiles easily for the photographer, looking vibrant and relaxed, as though magazine photo shoots are an every day occurrence.

“She’s so photogenic it’s ridiculous,” one of her co-workers says – without a hint of jealousy – from a corner of the loft-style room. Were it not for the smattering of filing cabinets and desks, I’d believe I was visiting the home – and not the office – of an uber-stylish girlfriend. An uber-stylish girlfriend who really likes pink.

Thirty-nine-year-old DeCoteau is dynamic and trendy. Her white shirt and dark blue jeans fit her perfectly (with pewter coloured strappy sandals peeking out from under the hem of her denim). It’s a casual look, given it’s not Friday, but this doesn’t seem like the kind of office with a dress code – unless looking fabulous is a dress code, and everyone does. There’s an air of efficiency in the room, but also one of contented wellbeing.

Welcome to the Rethink sisterhood: spend more than five minutes here, and you’ll want to move in.

Notably, amongst the soft pink file folders and hot pink Post-it notes, the Rethink office, located between Toronto’s boho-chic Queen West neighbourhood and the tapestry of Chinatown, doesn’t house a single pink ribbon. Which is not to say the other breast cancer-related charities are doing anything wrong. It’s just that their  message is meant for someone else.

“When I lost my mother to breast cancer, I was in my early 20’s,” says DeCoteau. “I wasn’t going to throw on a pink ribbon t-shirt or fuzzy pink socks – I was going out to see alternative rock bands.”

So she started Rethink in 2001, from the dining room table of her one-bedroom apartment. She was applying an entrepreneurial streak, founded on something deeply personal, and soon was well underway down her own  path, a young and dynamic woman who had created a fun yet wildly innovative and as a result a perfectly impactful organization. The original plan was to target young people dealing with the disease: the 18-34 year old women (and men) who simply weren’t relating to the traditional messages delivered about breast cancer, mostly because the disease is more common in an older demographic. (In 2009, it was estimated that more than 27,000 Canadians were diagnosed with breast cancer. About 4,000 of those were under 50.)

“MJ inspires others,” says Farheen Beg, Rethink’s senior manager of support and education programs.

“Her openness is what makes working with her so easy. And though MJ is the founder and executive director, she is approachable and has a spirit of collaboration when we work together. I feel that she communicates with me as an equal and values my experience and contributions. We share a passion to support, educate and inspire people, and to improve the lives of women who are living with breast cancer. I feel like we’re in this together.”

“We’ve been at this location for three years this summer,” DeCoteau says once we’re settled in her office, sitting across from each other at a high table with bar stools. Rethink is growing steadily, and now has a staff of 12. She gestures through a cut out in the wall towards the main space, with its polished wood floors, exposed pipes and beams, open-concept kitchen, and grouping of couches instead of a boardroom. “Obviously, we’re a not-for-profit, so we can’t indulge too much, but I do think it’s important to have space that inspires and that we’re comfortable in.”

Rethink is perhaps best known for its stylish soirees, film festivals and fashion-forward style: Last year in Toronto, the annual Rethink Romp, featuring a prohibition theme complete with flappers and bootleggers, raised nearly $100,000, much of which goes to funding scientific research and creating support programs.

This October, the 10th annual Boobyball is at KoolHaus in Toronto. The theme is the ’70s and the plan is disco queens, glam rock royalty, and urchins in the night. And the Breast Fest Film Festival, slated for the end of November, is going into its third year. It’s a two-day extravaganza of breast-cancer related short films, documentaries, animation, dramatic features and experimental works running the gamut from funny to devastating.

“We try to find ways to weave our messages into fashion, music and film,” says DeCoteau.

In 2001, newly founded Rethink was behind the advent of the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer t-shirt campaign, which has been going ever since. The “Target” tees have been worn by everyone from Kim Cattrall to Linda Evangelista and have raised $1.5 million for the cause so far.

Then there are the Rethink Breast Cancer advertising campaigns, all made possible by the generosity of agencies like Zig and Bensimon Byrne. They’re nothing short of legendary. Last year, an MTV-Canada created spot featuring busty MTV host Aliya-Jasmine Sovani was released to promote the Boobyball.

“It was all about her boobs,” DeCoteau says. “It was cute and cheeky and campy, and targeted a young audience. It went over very well in Canada.”

The ad went viral on You Tube and got some notice across the border as well.

“There was a glowing piece in the LA Times and it led to an insane media frenzy in the U.S.,” says DeCoteau, who still seems overwhelmed by the coverage. “It was on Good Morning, America, it was discussed on The View, it went on and on.”

Rethink even got letters saying the ad was inappropriate and even “disgusting.” But whether it was loved or hated, the ad most certainly accomplished the Rethink mandate, which is to force people to think differently about breast cancer, and to raise awareness in a sassy way.

Still, sass can only get you so far. When DeCoteau had her daughter, Annie – named after her late mother – now six-and-a-half, she realized there was another side to the realities of being a young person diagnosed with breast cancer.

The challenges of parenthood, daunting at times even for a person not facing health challenges, had the potential to overwhelm and devastate young families attempting to cope.

“Having a baby brought new perspective, and becoming a mother inspired me to create the Support Saturdays program. On Saturdays, young moms – women who have been diagnosed during pregnancy, or when they’re caring for young children – meet here in the lounge.” There, they work with two facilitative psychologists and get support.

She points toward the couches, near the pink stenciled wall, and for a moment, she pauses.

At first, I consider the sadness the space has likely seen, then reconsider the joy and hope the space provides. It’s a far cry from the cocktail and party circuit, but it’s an important part of an organization that’s growing up a little – we all have to sometime – without losing its bon vivant sensibilities.

Support Saturdays doesn’t just involve the moms. One floor below, in the Centre for Social Innovation, a space shared by all the tenants in the building housing Rethink, the dads and kids while away the morning, playing games, doing crafts, and talking.

“It’s like an organized play date, designed to provide some lighter support,” says DeCoteau. “There are child life specialists, and books, and other breast cancer resources available. But we don’t shove it down their throats, we just present it to them. Kids are naturally very curious about what’s going on with their mom. It’s better to give them the info, rather than having them try to figure out things on their own.”

Rethink also supports the Nanny Angel Network, a team of volunteer childcare providers who give free relief childcare to mothers learning to live with breast cancer. And the Little Sweetheart Ball, a Toronto and Vancouver affair that DeCoteau describes as a “funky kids event,” means infants and toddlers can now get in on the fundraising revelry as well.

This is a very personalized charity, and thus it seems fitting, if incredibly sad, that breast cancer has played such a large part in DeCoteau’s life.

“My grandmother was diagnosed with a huge lump and didn’t tell anyone about it until it was quite massive, but she was fine. She had a mastectomy and radiation and lived into her late 80s,” says DeCoteau. “When my mom was diagnosed, her lump was so tiny and caught so early, and she was young and healthy, so we were thinking she was going to be fine. It really speaks to the time – we didn’t know anything back then.”

In the case of MJ’s mother, who was 53 when the disease claimed her life, the cancer was aggressive. It resisted treatment and metastasized to her liver.

“At that point it was very quick,” DeCoteau says, looking down. When she looks up again, the sparkle is back. “My mom and grandmother having breast cancer didn’t even qualify me for genetic testing because of how different their situations and outcomes were. I was thinking that so many women get it, and that it might have been random with my mom and grandmother. My mom has two sisters, and they seemed to be fine.”

But less than a month ago, DeCoteau’s aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. “For so many years I clung to the fact that my aunts didn’t have breast cancer. It gave me hope. I was really hit quite hard by my aunt’s diagnosis.”

DeCoteau is now planning to meet with a breast specialist and discuss genetic testing, which her daughter will also be eligible for when she’s 18. DeCoteau eagerly shows photos of Annie. She’s beautiful and pixie-like in her figure skating uniform. “And by the time she’s 18, we’ll know so much more about the disease.”

She’s not taking any of this lying down, that much is clear. “I do think we’ve really transformed how people think about breast cancer. And I’m so happy that we’re here and we’re growing, almost ten years later.”

It’s obvious that she means it – but also that she wishes fervently, every single day, that Rethink had no reason at all to exist. And she’s working on it.