'I never ask my doctor how long I've got': 23-year-old Kristin Hallenga's health crusade to warn women about risks of breast cancer

At just 23, her GP told her a lump on her breast was nothing to worry about. Now Kristin Hallenga has advanced cancer – and devotes her time to alerting younger women to the risks

Crushed into a Beijing subway train each morning as she commuted to her first job in the travel industry, Kristin Hallenga joked with a friend that the otherwise exclusively male inhabitants of the carriage were "copping a feel". Aged just 23, she had no way of knowing that casual joke would soon come to symbolise her own personal crusade to alert young women to the dangers of breast cancer and revolutionise attitudes in the health service.

Before leaving for China, she had complained to her GP of a lump in her breast but the doctor had simply brushed the symptoms off as hormonal and told her to "go away and have a good time".

It would take eight months, three doctors and the dogged determination of her mother Jane, before the medical profession acknowledged her symptoms. By that time the cancer had spread to her spine, to a more lethal secondary illness. She will never know whether that eight months could have made a difference.

Sitting in the CoppaFeel! charity offices in London four years later, it seems inconceivable that this outwardly healthy, composed young woman now has cancer of the breast, spine, hips, pelvis, liver as well as sacrum and recently had to have a tumour removed from her brain. Her illness is at stage four and, as her blog relates in matter-of-fact terms, there is no stage five. Kris has grown used to the mournful "head tilt" she receives from strangers but she has no time for self-pity. She tells her story, not in search of sympathy, but in an attempt to warn other young men and women of the risks.

Breast cancer is very rare in the young – only around 30 women under 25 are diagnosed with it each year – but the tumours are more likely to be aggressive. "At my age I had a one in 15,000 chance of getting breast cancer so obviously I am a bit special," she says with a wry smile.

"I'd known something was wrong for some time. But the doctor told me to go away and have a good time and that was what I wanted to hear. In China the lump was not going away and a couple of nights the pain would wake me up."

Upon her return to the UK she explained to a second GP that her grandmother had suffered from the disease at 30, though she survived into old age after a mastectomy, but he still sent her home. "My mum said, 'I am not having this and you are going back'. I can still remember the look on her face. She felt so angry with their attitude."

Upon her third visit she finally succeeded in convincing the doctor to refer her for further tests. A month later she was called into a hospital room to face a doctor, assistant and nurse. Without waiting for her mother to finish parking the car, they broke the news to her. "It was all rather horrendous. My mum walked into the room and all she could see was me in tears. It was like an out-of-body experience. Suddenly I didn't feel it was me. All I could think was how is this real? How is it happening? My mum just said: 'It should be me, not you.'"

Worse was to come. After a series of scans, doctors confirmed that the cancer was secondary and had spread to her spine. The hardest thing, Kris says, was having to tell her identical twin Maren – who has since been tested and found to be clear – and her older sister. They had already lost their father at a young age.

Over the following months she endured a range of treatments including radiotherapy, chemotherapy and a mastectomy. "The mastectomy was not a problem. Knowing this thing was trying to kill me, I was just glad to get rid," she says bluntly. "One breast is not going to define who I am. I want to live."

Despite the tears and the pain of treatment, it was less than a month before she decided she had to warn others and CoppaFeel! was launched. "The day I was diagnosed, I was told there was a breast-cancer support group but I would be the youngest there. I didn't want to sit around talking about it. I had stuff to do," she says.

"I did some research and thought, why isn't anyone speaking to young people about this disease? Why didn't I check myself? There were some great campaigns in America, so I contacted them. I didn't have a mortgage, didn't have a marriage or kids. I could plough all my energy into doing something that could actually change behaviour and attitudes when it comes to this disease."

With Maren's help, she designed a logo and website and got permission to set up a gazebo at Beach Break Live 2009. During the student music festival, they handed out T-shirts and stickers with friends, including the man who would become her boyfriend. Four years on CoppaFeel! has "boobette" teams spreading the message in universities, schools, music festivals and youngmother groups. "We are trying to encourage people to get to know their boobs. Let's try and kill this scary stigma attached to cancer. If you find it early it does not have to be this horrendous disease," explains Kris. The charity's website is full of fun ideas, encouraging hundreds of supporters to run as giant "hooters" in marathons or organising a "boob flashdance" to raise funds.

Meanwhile, the team sends out monthly jokey text messages to remind people to check themselves. Well-known names such as TV presenters Fearne Cotton and Dermot O'Leary have been recruited to help tweet for the cause.

Even more fundamentally, Kris is now on the Breast Cancer Working Group and has attended meetings at the Department of Health. She is determined to change attitudes in the NHS, to encourage GPs not to be dismissive if younger women are worried. "We encourage all women of any age to be breast aware and follow the five-point code: know what is normal for you; look and feel; know what changes to look for and report any changes to your doctor without delay," a spokesman for the Department of Health said.

Today Kris praises the care she continues to receive at London's Charing Cross Hospital. But, despite her cheerful demeanour, she admits to the odd "wobble"; the odd bad day.

"They discovered a new tumour on my spine (in 2011). From one second to the next I couldn't move and they had to take me to hospital in an ambulance. Seeing the fear in my sister's eyes – that was the worst moment. I can deal with it, take the drugs. All my sister can do is watch."

Kris does not know her prognosis, and it is not a word she will even contemplate: "I never ask my doctor and my doctor doesn't tell me about it. Right now I am well and there is no point in looking to the future. I am certainly not as rock 'n' roll as I used to be, but I am very lucky. So far so good. Before, I didn't really know what happiness meant. Life is much more meaningful now. I have a sense of purpose. I get to do a job where I am my own boss and if I don't want to get out of bed in the morning, I don't."

There have also been incredible highlights such as when her work was recognised with a Pride of Britain award or when she was asked to carry an Olympic torch on part of its London route. "It was amazing. One of the best days of my life," she says. But her proudest moments have been saved for more personal successes: "The highlight is when CoppaFeel! really does work. There was this 26-year-old woman, Jenny, who was not going to go back to her GP until she read about CoppaFeel! She was diagnosed a week later with the early stages of breast cancer."

Listening to Kris's courageous determination, it is intoxicating to believe that she could triumph against the odds but nothing is certain.

The only thing one can be sure of is that she would have had a far better chance if there had been somebody like her there four years ago to warn her to try and catch it early.

coppafeel.org

 

Independent partners: Health insurance premiums from 70p a day. Get a quote or call 01202 544 095

 

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced PPC Search Marketing Executive

    £19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

    Recruitment Genius: PR and Press Executive - Beauty

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A leading cosmetics group is lo...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Applications Engineer

    £24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Applications Enginee...

    Day In a Page

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue