'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

 

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
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

    Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

    Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

    C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition