Kristin Hallenga joined a choir recently, because, she explains, “I wanted something for me that was not cancer and boobs.”
It is easy to understand why the founder of the breast cancer charity CoppaFeel! might seek a diversion from her high-profile life as a campaigner. Now 29, she was 23 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; seven days later, doctors told her it had spread to her spine. The cancer is now at stage four and has reached her pelvis, hips, liver and brain.
On Monday, Kris will receive a DFS Women of the Year Outstanding Young Campaigner Award. The recognition is “amazing”, she says, but her true measure of success is the way young people are “changing their behaviour because of us”.
The glitzy 60th anniversary Women of the Year Lunch and Awards at the InterContinental London Park Lane will be an opportunity “to stop and think ‘Oh right, this is what I have achieved,’ as I don’t do this very often”, she says, smiling.
Kris and her twin sister, Maren, set up the charity a month after Kris was diagnosed. This was eight months after a GP dismissed concerns about a lump in her breast, because of her age. She has admitted in the past that her slow diagnosis made her lose faith in the medical system. And while she cannot know if an earlier referral would have made a difference, she does know that 90 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage survive for at least five years, compared with around 15 per cent of those diagnosed with the most advanced stage.
The reason Kris is being celebrated this week is because of what she has chosen to do since she was diagnosed: dedicate her life to ensuring that other young people check their breasts regularly in the hope this will improve early detection rates. In a few years, CoppaFeel! has grown to have eight full-time staff with an office in east London, and a team of Boobettes, women affected by breast cancer who tour the country, visiting schools, universities and festivals with their message of self-examination.
Currently, Kris is working on a “bra hijack”, a campaign calling for bra makers to sew in labels reminding women to check their breasts. She has also launched Rethink Cancer with the support of several MPs, and is calling for cancer awareness to be taught in secondary schools so children “will know their bodies and learn to look after them”.
“The chance of a child experiencing cancer is high,” she says. “One in two will get cancer, so it’s bonkers not to talk about this in school.
“If body awareness was written into the curriculum, or even if Personal Social, Health and Economic education was statutory that would have an incredible impact and it saddens me that the Government doesn’t see the importance of teaching these extra things to kids.”
CoppaFeel! is already saving lives. Kris receives many emails from women who say that they checked their breasts after hearing about the charity, and in some cases this has led to an early diagnosis.
Last year, she filmed the BBC3 documentary Kris: Dying to Live, which spread her message further and she also teamed up for a campaign with The Sun’s Page 3 called Check ’em Tuesday. It led to two-thirds of Sun readers regularly checking their breasts, with 72 per cent saying they are now confident they would notice unexplained changes compared with 41 per cent in March last year.
CoppaFeel! was criticised by those who felt the tabloid campaign was sexualising breast cancer, but Kris’s response to the critics is straightforward: “Read the results.”
She was “99 per cent sure” that The Sun campaign would have a positive impact, but the torrent of abuse was hard, and she admits to having doubted herself.
“It was all quite personal stuff, but I had to keep remembering that it didn’t matter if I agreed with The Sun’s existence or Page 3’s existence. It was about using something that talks to people and bringing a very important message into their lives.”
I ask how she feels about being celebrated for her courage.
“My beef is people associating having cancer with being inspirational and brave, and I don’t think those two things should be linked,” she says. “It’s just the way you have to live and survive it. I don’t mind being called inspirational if I have inspired someone to do something good. Brave I hate, as I have no choice but to do what I can to survive. I think I was brave to make a documentary, as that was not easy, but it was quite important for me to do that.”
Kris underwent five months of chemotherapy after diagnosis, and now attends hospital once a month for hormone injections and bisphosphonates. The latter “help my bones recover from any cancer it has had and helps repel new cancer”, she explains. “It’s good stuff and I’ve been on it from the start.” She also has regular scans and takes tablets daily, but is currently well and busy with her full-time job at CoppaFeel! and the whirl of celebrity events that go hand in hand with promoting a high-profile charity.
She often thinks about her legacy. “People tell me I don’t need to worry about that as I have done enough. But I do, as I’m a bit of a control freak, and I’d like to think I leave this place having made a long-term impact.”
In the meantime, she has a lot of living to do. In May, Kris walked Maren, who lives in Cornwall, down the aisle in place of their father who died when the twins were 21. They also have an elder sister, Maike, who is a teacher. “I was part of the first dance so it felt like I was getting married,” Kris says. “I have never seen her so happy. It was such a special day.”
She has wasted little energy feeling angry, instead channelling any frustration into her work. She avoids thinking about the future. “Fun times is my religion, doing cool things,” she says, laughing broadly once more.
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