Girl power: When her life changed dramatically Kris Hallenga used her experience to change the world forever.
Kris discovered she had breast cancer when she was only 22. Through her pioneering campaign charity CoppaFeel! she has brought confidence, hope and inspiration to countless people across the world. She epitomises the modern patient and, following her own challenging prognosis, has given others the strength to take control. I had the pleasure of chatting to her and this is her remarkable story.
What initiatives is CoppaFeel! driving this summer?
It’s funny you should mention driving, we have a big van called Belinda, the ‘boob-mobile’, which goes around festivals. It’s a brilliant education hub, where we give young people temporary tattoos and, as our volunteers are applying them, open up a conversation about boob health. We can also get a bit of data, and they can spread info about breast cancer and CoppaFeel! across social media. We’ve been doing this for years, but it is the first time we’ve had our own vehicle, which is really cool. Those five-minute conversations we’re having in a field are potentially life-saving.
Uniquely, the CoppaFeel! website takes something very serious and approaches it in a fun way.
It helps that a bunch of young people started it – we knew how we wanted to be spoken to. Although I am 31 now, I am surrounded by students in the office, so I appreciate the vibe among teenagers and people in their twenties. When we first went into schools we were surprised by how much kids wanted to know. Most people have had an experience, in their family or social group, of cancer. They’re resilient and up for learning new things.
You’ve also got some familiar faces on your website.
It’s great to have celebrity endorsements from the likes of Dermot O’Leary and Fearne Cotton, but we’re now moving towards online influencers and ‘youtubers’. Although many of us have not heard of them, young people are watching their output day in, day out.
Your messages seem to be about handing control back to patients.
We should never entirely rely on other people when it comes to our own health. Even if our healthcare providers picked up every cancer, we still need to know our own bodies. After my experience, it seems absurd that you would rock up to a GP, let them examine you once and accept the verdict. Knowing your own body and when you need to act on something, gives you a sense of control which is very empowering. If you confidently say that, after 10 years of checking, there is something different about your boobs, they have to refer you.
What had your experience with HCPs been?
I was let down badly by two GPs, but had I known myself that the changes happening to my boobs were bad, things could have been very different. People ask me why I didn’t sue, but getting two GPs struck off wasn’t going to make a massive impact. Educating people and promoting better conversations about breast cancer with GPs could. Ultimately, the GPs that ignored my symptoms would have seen my story in the press and I like to think they would not make the same mistakes again.
How did you get through the initial period after diagnosis?
I started immediately with a secondary diagnosis and, knowing that it was a disease I was unlikely to get rid of, had to navigate my own route through it. There were days when I was crying a lot, but I had a treatment plan and was focussed on getting better. Waiting to see the impact of my first treatment was most difficult.
When did you regroup and decide to do something positive?
Two months after my diagnosis and 10 days before my hair fell out, I was at my mum’s house with some friends and my sisters. I told them there wasn’t really any provision for young people to find out about breast cancer, and asked if they wanted to help me create something. Despite not having any experience they all wanted to give their time.
How quickly did you realise you had a hit?
During the first festival we went to, we were positioned beside the mainstage. It was all very amateur; just a gazebo and some stickers! I was going through chemo and injecting myself to ensure my white blood cells were at an acceptable level. We just blagged it, by painting people’s faces, as an excuse to talk about boobs. The tent was full the entire time and we realised right then that if we could convince students, we could be on to something. Following that I had my mastectomy, we got charity status and I won a Pride of Britain Award.
What treatments have you been on?
I’m on palbociclib, which was developed by Pfizer, and is doing wonders at the moment. I’m also taking exemestane, the hormone blockers, and monthly injections of denosumab. This is another example of taking control. Oncologists don’t know everything and I did my own research about which drugs were right for me.
Is there life before and after cancer diagnosis?
I had been living in Beijing and found out my diagnosis when I returned home for Christmas. When I think about the girl before cancer, I was very different. I was 22, didn’t really have a clue about life and had been through a couple of bad relationships. I wasn’t sure what my purpose was but, oddly enough, when I found out I had cancer, the purpose became clear.
What are your plans now?
Somehow eight years have passed since I started CoppaFeel!. At the beginning of last year, I took a step back from being CEO. I stay involved in the campaigns and continue doing the things I love, but now I also have a life in Cornwall.
Thoroughly deserved. What is your perfect day?
Discovering a new café that does a delicious brunch, and paddle-boarding on a calm lake.
Naturally. What hit record says most about you?
‘Power’ by Little Mix.
I’ll check them out. Goodbye Kris.