Interview: Kris Hallenga

Since being diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in her early twenties, Kris Hallenga has made it her mission to stamp out late detection of the disease. Her charity CoppaFeel! aims to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms ofbreast cancer among young women, and to highlight the importance of checking their breasts regularly. I talk to Kris about the success of CoppaFeel!, and why educating people about cancer from a young age is so important.

Since founding CoppaFeel! with her sister Maren in 2009, the charity has gone from strength to strength, massively expanding its work over the last few years. Not that Kris expected such rapid success from the outset: “I didn’t really know what to expect. I was doing something that’s quite different from what I was doing before, but when I saw how it captured people’s imagination I realised I was onto a winner! The fact that I had no background in PR or things like that meant I really didn’t know what to expect, so it came as an awesome and pleasant surprise – although I was always determined to make it as successful and big as possible.”

Astonishingly, Kris founded CoppaFeel! scarcely a month after being diagnosed with breast cancer herself, aged 23. She tells me that she wanted to do it because “it was an issue so prominent in my mind given my recent diagnosis, and the way I’d been told I was too young for the disease. I was frustrated about the many factors which had contributed to my late diagnosis, and I just needed something other than treatment to focus on. Suddenly back living with my mum, going to hospital every week, the charity idea seemed like a brilliant way to focus my mind on what was happening to me. I found that actually finding a solution to the problem was probably the best way around it.”

After being diagnosed, Kris wanted CoppaFeel! to target young people in
particular. “We learn so much when we’re young. That’s when we pick up the most important life lessons, and it’s incredibly important for young people torealise how useful it is to get to know their bodies – to help prevent any cancer, not just breast cancer. As children we learn to crossthe street safely, and that’s not just to protect you there and then, it’s a lesson for life. It’s about teaching people good habits before fear kicks in. I hear of a lot of people who are in their 30s but avoid checking their boobs because they’re afraid offinding something, because they’re more likely to have had someone in their life suffer from the disease. Whereas we speak to 16-year-olds, who may have had grandmothers or mothers diagnosed with the disease, but who are much more fearless and more susceptible to new ideas and learning new habits – good and bad!

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“If we can instil the message from a young age, we can instil healthy habits for
life. Why wait until you’re older to start doing something which could potentially save your life? We shouldn’t just wait until we get our letters inviting us to a mammogram – a lot of breast cancer is found through self-detection.”

The charity aims to raise awareness of the ease with which women can check their own breasts and detect the early signs of cancer, Kris says. “It’s so easy to check yourself. Unfortunately, lots of people think there’s a really regimented and tricky way of doing it, but it is just a case of getting to know your boobs, what they look and feel like and having a good look and a good feel – however you want to do it. The logical time to do it would be in the shower because you’re naked anyway. Just try to notice any changes, and if there’s anything there that’s abnormal for you, go and get it checked out straight away. Also, remember that breast tissue goes right up to your armpits and your collarbone, so have a good check all over your chest.”

What’s striking about CoppaFeel!, from its very name to its fundraising events (‘Bikin’ for Boobies’ and ‘Joggin’ for Jugs’), is the irreverent humour it employs to reach out to young people. “I think our brand is young and fun and light-hearted because that’s the kind of messaging our target demographic respond to. It’s far more effective than going down the scare tactic route. Most of the time we’re talking about boobs and not necessarily about breast cancer – we want them to get to know and love their boobs!

“We’re not denying that this is a horrible disease. Obviously the founder (me) is a sufferer and has to deal with it cancer’s painful realities every single day. However, I also know that people don’t have to be in my position; people can actually find breast cancer at a time when it can be treated successfully and then get on with their lives. It’s not necessarily as deadly as we perhaps fear, or as is sometimes portrayed in the media.”

Since she founded CoppaFeel!, Kris has been invited to Downing Street and won a Pride of Britain award,but it’s not these glitzy events that make her work worthwhile: “I think my personal highlight is actually hearing that people have taken our message on board, and that it has potentially saved their life incase where they have got a diagnosis early. That for me is the pay off to every stressful situation: every time I’m working late or I feel like I just hate my job – success stories allow everything to make sense again.”

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In the next few months, CoppaFeel! is launching a series of fundraising lectures, the first of which takes place on February 4th at the Hoxton Hotel inLondon. Kris explains, “I’ve done lots oftalks myself and I can see the impact that they have on people’s lives. Lots of people have good stories and we just want to spread a little bit of positive spirit. It’s something we’ve never done before, and we think people will be interested in them; there are lots of very inspiring people in this world and we just want to showcase that. It’s a fundraiser for CoppaFeel but it’s also something people can learn a lot from.”

2014 is set to be a big year for Kris and the charity, with a new documentary already recorded which charts Kris’ desire to bring cancer education into schools. “We want to make sure cancer education is happening during the school day. It should be wedged into people’s lives from a young age and, given young people are in schools, it makes sense.”

The charity is also pioneering another innovative textile-based initiative. Kris
tells me, “We want to make sure our labelsare in all bras – it’s our ‘Bra Hijack’. We want to remind more people of our message through the strategic placing of labels in bras. The hope is that when women are putting their bras on they get a quick reminder to have a check of their boobs. As you can probably tell, we’re really engaged in finding new and interesting ways ofreminding people to do that.”

As this interview demonstrates, another major aim for Coppafeel! is to reach out to more students. This is a priority for Kris. “We’ve got new people starting at the charity this year and there are lots of new opportunities. We’re only at 55 universities so far, so we’re unfortunately only touching about a third. We’d love to have some presence in all of them soon.Wherever there are young people, we want to be there helping them out.

CoppaFeel ’s student-run Oxford Boob Team went university wide last
term. Their aim is to get to as many JCR Welfare Teas as possible. The Boob Team will also be PhotoBoobing in the Coppa Feel Boob Suits by the RadCam and on Cornmarket on Saturday of 3rd week to raise awareness, and running fund-raising Zumba classes in 5th week.

Text ‘OXFORD’ to 70500 to receive a free monthly reminder to check your boobs.