Kristin Hallenga: 'Cancer Had Never Crossed My Mind, Not For A Second’

Six months later, having returned from travelling in China, Kristin was experiencing pain in her breast, so went back to her doctor. He told her to come off the contraceptive pill, which she did, but her mother urged her to ask for a referral to a breast clinic. There, she was told to wait three weeks for her hormones to settle before getting tested.

“In that time, I woke up with a blood-stained T-shirt,” remembers Kristin. “By the time it was found, the cancer was avocado-sized. One week later, after I’d had tests on my bones and organs, they told me it was secondary, because it had spread to my spine.”

Kristin broke the news to her twin – “the hardest conversation I’ve ever had to have” – and almost immediately started treatment: chemotherapy to shrink the cancer, followed by a mastectomy.

“Cancer had never crossed my mind, not even for one second,” she says. “It obviously came as a shock to the doctors because I was one of the youngest patients they’d seen, but I don’t know why, because medically it is something that they know can happen.” Though her cancer isn’t hereditary, Kristin’s doctors knew that her grandmother had had breast cancer at the age of 30 – but didn’t suggest that this might be a risk factor. “She lived until she was 75 so it wasn’t something I brought up straight away or something they focused on,” she explains. “When my consultant told me the diagnosis, he said, 'We were a bit worried about your grandmother having it so young,’ but that was news to me. I didn’t know they were worried.”

Grappling with cancer at such a young age, Kristin soon became aware of the lack of support – and, crucially, information – for others in her position. During her first round of chemotherapy, with Maren’s help, she set up

CoppaFeel!, a breast cancer awareness charity, which aims to raise the profile of the disease and get teenagers and twentysomethings checking their breasts.

It started with fundraising at a festival and, over five years, has become one of Britain’s most widely supported causes. Kristin was awarded the Pride of Britain award in 2009, and her searing story has been made into a documentary, Kris: Dying to Live, which will be shown on BBC Three.

Kristin’s message – there is no such thing as “too young for cancer” – has taken on particular significance these past few weeks. Sophie Jones’s death stunned the nation, but she was not the first to face such an unjust fate. Before her, there was 23-year-old Mercedes Curnow from Cornwall, who died in 2011 of cervical cancer, which went undetected after she was refused tests. There was Stephanie Knight, 21, from Hertfordshire, who died of bone cancer last year; Diane Stevens, 18, from Reading, who died of breast cancer in 2001. And, of course, Jade Goody, the 27-year-old reality TV star, who died in 2009 from cervical cancer – and whose death sparked a surge in demand for smear tests.

According to the ONS, seven 13- to 24-year-olds are diagnosed with cancer every day in the UK, totalling 2,214 between 2008 and 2010. Shockingly, cancer is the most common medical cause of death in young people – yet all too often we hear tales of fatally late diagnoses. “One in three of us get it,” says Kristin. “From a young age, we learn to cross the street, to brush our teeth – so why aren’t we learning about a disease that we’re more than likely to get in our lives?”

Changing attitudes towards young people and cancer, however, is no easy feat.

CoppaFeel! – with its irreverent humour and eye-catching publicity stunts (flashmobs, Tube advertisements, festival stalls) – is making headway by talking to teenagers in a language they understand. The next step, Kristin believes, is targeting schools and to this end she has founded Rethink Cancer, an initiative aiming to get education about all types of cancer integrated into the curriculum. “We need to train teachers as well as students,” she says. “Getting young people to be aware of the signs of cancer, to start knowing their own bodies, is a habit they should learn when they’re young.”

What about the medical profession? Sophie’s family have said they feel let down by the NHS; and Kristin agrees that smear tests should be offered earlier. “I was particularly unlucky with my GP, just like Sophie,” she says. “Her story is horrendous because she was turned down – and I think anyone with symptoms should be tested. But I have been very careful not to slate the medical profession because that doesn’t bring us anything. Getting stories like Sophie’s, and mine, out there for doctors to read and say, 'I must listen to my younger patients,’ is much more beneficial.”

Does she blame her doctor for not picking up her cancer earlier? “I feel blame at many people,” she says. “I don’t necessarily want to blame myself, because there was nothing telling me that cancer could happen. I wish I’d had someone like me standing in front of me at school, or university; it might have been a trigger point in that I could have gone to the GP sooner.”

Since she has been diagnosed, she adds, referral practices have changed – so under-30s are no longer automatically classed as “non-urgent” patients. “I could have been waiting up to 10 weeks for a scan. So that’s a positive change.”

All the while, Kristin’s battle against cancer continues – though you wouldn’t know it to look at her, a smiling, pretty blonde with a wide, carefree smile. Since her diagnosis, her cancer has spread to her liver and, most recently, to her brain. She has lost one breast and her hair to chemotherapy. She has appointments at Charing Cross hospital every month, and takes painkillers daily. “Cancer is kind of my life these days,” she says. “I don’t really think about the future. I’ve never been one of those people who plan, even before the cancer. I’m just enjoying living, taking it all in, week by week.”

Tomorrow is Sophie Jones’s funeral. For now, Kristin will keep on fighting the fight that she lost.

'Kris: Dying to Live’ is on BBC Three on March 26 at 9pm

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