Kris Hallenga: 'Frustration and anger didn't serve me so I channeled them into breast cancer awareness'

CoppaFeel! founder Kris Hallenga is next in our Women Who Win series, giving us some insight into how to turn a devastating diagnosis into a global movement...

Kris Hallenga
(Image credit: Swarovski)

CoppaFeel! founder Kris Hallenga is next in our Women Who Win series, giving us some insight into how to turn a devastating diagnosis into a global movement...

We've all heard of CoppaFeel! - with the London-based breast cancer awareness charity credited with saving lives through promoting early detection of breast cancer, and forming a sisterhood in the process.

But someone who doesn't get enough credit is the inspirational woman behind the movement - Kris Hallenga, who turned an incurable cancer diagnosis into an opportunity to help other people by raising breast cancer awareness.

'Frustration and anger didn’t serve me,' Kris told Marie Claire Junior News Editor Jenny Proudfoot. 'So instead I channeled them into something good, something I knew could help others so that no one else would be in the same position as me,' with Kris' cancer being diagnosed too late.

‘I was 22 when I came across a lump in my boob, which I had ignored for a while and never thought twice about,' Kris recalled, going on to explain how it was 'a pushy Mum and some persistence' that led her to a breast cancer diagnosis, after several GPs had dismissed the lump as 'nothing'.

'I also found out it was late stage, the worst kind, as it had already spread beyond my boob and into my spine,' Kris continued, explaining how her initial reaction was shock. 'I couldn’t understand how it had gone from “nothing” to cancer and I had NO idea it could happen. It was awful, there were tears, I was frightened, I was confused, I was baffled but above all I was ready to do whatever I needed to survive.’

A photo posted by on

But the mission was even bigger for Kris, who instead of seeing her diagnosis as a problem for her, turned it into an opportunity to help others.

'No one was educating young people, so I decided I had to, with the help of my twin sister and some very epic mates.'

The result? CoppaFeel! - the movement we all know and love, started by Kris and Maren, aiming to educate young women about breast cancer and informing them how to check their breasts for themselves.

As part of Swarovski's Stories of Yes campaign, celebrating women embracing change, Kris is one of many high profile women to come forward this year with her story of adapting to change - and to say that it's inspiring would be a massive understatement.

Our Women Who Win interview series celebrates strong and inspirational female trailblazers, shaping the future for us all, and Kris Hallenga and her refusal to let a diagnosis hold her back is that in a nutshell.

Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Kris to find out how CoppaFeel! got started, and what we should all be taking away from it...

A photo posted by on

What message do you most want to spread?

First and foremost - CHECK YOUR BOOBS. But beyond that it’s a message of overall body awareness, knowing yourself and trusting YOUR touch and your intuition over anyone. You are your best health advocate and if you notice anything that isn’t right, you have to get it checked out.

How did you create CoppaFeel?

I did a lot of research! I wanted to find out what the state of 'breast awareness' in the UK was and how we could ensure it reached young people. The first thing we did was go to a festival because we saw that as a great challenge - if we could get through to young people in a field, where they are on a mission to have FUN, and we can speak to them, educate them and empower them, we would be onto a winner. We learnt on the job, adapted our methods as we went along and suddenly we were having so many healthy conversations about boobs. By the end of our summer of festivals we had applied to be a charity, I won a Pride of Britain Award and a month later we got charity status and that’s when the hard work really began. I have blinked and somehow 9 years have flown by! It would be over a year until I was officially 'employed' by the charity and could afford to move away from my Mum's house in Northamptonshire and take the charity to London, the only place I could see a future for the charity. People believed in me, and our mission so nothing could hold us back.

A photo posted by on

In the spirit of Stories of Yes, tell me about facing challenges head on...

In the face of something so terrifying, something we all fear, I learnt how to really live. I learnt to LIVE with cancer, how to be my own boss, the boss of a charity and a change maker. Cancer is the toughest challenge you could face - although, there are many MANY more equally if not worse things going on for people, and knowing that keeps me pretty humble and filled with gratitude. Of course I have bad days, I have had to dig SO deep at times to get my head above water again, but every time I do I have a renewed respect for my mind and my body and for life in general. I have been forced to confront my mortality but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I see life for what it is - fleeting! None of us are getting out of here alive, so really who is the winner here? I am.

What drew you to a campaign with Swarovski?

Working with Swarovski is a lot of fun. If you’d have said the day I was diagnosed I’d be working with them, with Swarovski rings on my fingers as I type away on my laptop answering these questions I’d have likely laughed. The CoppaFeel! message is for everyone, so we need to reach EVERYONE on as many platforms as possible. To be given a platform like this is wonderful and I am grateful that to this day people want to hear what I have to say. It’s a dream to work alongside mega babes Nadiya Hussain and Katie Piper, we all have such unique stories that people can learn from. They are tales of courage, resilience, and determination, all good stuff that needs to be shared with the world. In other words, we are all pretty badass and everyone should know that.

A photo posted by on

What is the best advice you've ever been given?

'Go to the GP' - my Mum, in 2008.

What should all women be aware of?

All women AND men should know that checking their boobs could be one of the best things they could do, it could save their life and bonus factor: it could even be fun! Most breast cancers are detected by the person noticing a symptom - that could be a lump but isn’t always. There are different types of breast cancer so don’t assume no lump = no cancer. Equally, if you do find a lump, the chances of it being cancer is actually very slim. The important thing is that you know what is normal FOR YOU. If you notice a rash, some dimpling, persistent pain, discharge in your breast tissue (which reaches right in to your armpit and your collarbone by the way!) and you know it’s not normal, it’s always worth having a chat to your GP about it. He or she is there to listen to you and take what you say seriously.

When were you proudest?

When we realised that what we did ACTUALLY made a difference was a pretty momentous occasion. Not long after we became a charity, a young woman had heard about my story and re-visited her GP about her breast lump, and lo and behold she was diagnosed with breast cancer within a week. She was so thankful for us empowering her, making her feel like she wasn’t going mad and giving her confidence to stand up for her body and her health. She credits still being alive to CoppaFeel! which no one can prove, but an early diagnosis gives you a better chance of surviving a long life. I am proud of who I now am because of cancer, because of CoppaFeel! and because of all the experiences I have had over the last 9 years. I really like who I am and what I have become - how many people can say that at the age of 33?

A photo posted by on

What is your superpower?

Procrastination, but still, somehow getting shit done. Creating CoppaFeel! was a real challenge, but I believe anything that is worthwhile is bloody hard work - it would also be really dull if it was easy.

What has creating CoppaFeel! taught you?

That people are bloody great! People can be so kind, so generous, so CREATIVE, and so brilliant not because they have to be, but because they want to be, and that is very cool. I never realised how good it felt to enable others to be good people, but that is one of the best off-shoots from starting my own charity. Every day I witness people being good humans and that is awesome.

What decision has changed your life?

Building CoppaFeel! has made my life, and it has saved my life. Without it I would never have had a purpose and a reason to live so ferociously - aside from my family of course - they're totally worth sticking around for too.

Jenny Proudfoot
Features Editor

Jenny Proudfoot is an award-winning journalist, specialising in lifestyle, culture, entertainment, international development and politics. She has worked at Marie Claire UK for seven years, rising from intern to Features Editor and is now the most published Marie Claire writer of all time. She was made a 30 under 30 award-winner last year and named a rising star in journalism by the Professional Publishers Association.