'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

 

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film
films

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
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

    History Teacher

    £60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

    ** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

    £120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

    ** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

    £60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

    Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album