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‘Standing on a stage speaking to hundreds of people, I feel strong. I feel powerful. I feel liked. I feel like I’m allowed to be me. But is that because I’ve been given a pass because of cancer?’
Kris Hallenga asks this question in Glittering a Turd, side effects accutane wikipedia her memoir charting 12 years with incurable breast cancer and her life before it.
Since being diagnosed at age 23, Kris has founded breast cancer education charity CoppaFeel!, curated and organised an annual music festival, talked in front of thousands, won a Pride of Britain award, successfully campaigned to get cancer on the school curriculum and – perhaps, most important of all – saved countless lives. Yet, in a chapter entitled ‘Worthiness,’ she ponders whether her success is down to her cancer.
Having known her for almost a decade, I can confidently say the answer is no.
It is not because of cancer that Kris, now 35, can command a room and inspire thousands of people. It is not because of cancer that her public speaking double act with twin sister Maren is one of the most captivating things I have ever seen.
It is not because of cancer that she can write words so powerful that I weep and snort with laughter in equal measure.
Sure, cancer may have been the life event that propelled her into the public eye and gave her the impetus to transform into a motivational speaker, but it is most definitely not the reason for her success.
If she hadn’t had cancer and become a charity CEO, Kris would have been the CEO of something else – she is immensely talented, smart and driven, with wisdom that stretches far beyond the topic of cancer.
If I sound gushy, it’s because, like many women in the UK and beyond, I have been hugely influenced by Kris.
I first met her and Maren after I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29 in 2012.
Like Kris, I had been dismissed by several doctors who said the lump in my breast was ‘probably hormonal’ and that I was ‘too young’ for cancer. Like Kris, I had been through a prolonged period of stress.
Like Kris’s, my maternal grandmother had also had breast cancer young, so my mother – like hers – was worried.
So when I read about this woman who had founded a charity to educate young people about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and to teach them to check their boobs on the regular, I knew I had to be involved.
CoppaFeel! were looking for volunteers to join their Boobette programme – an army of women who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and would go to schools and festivals to educate others.
I was relieved to find a way to help but, if I’m honest, I was equally relieved to discover there were women my age who could understand what I was going through – the fear that chemotherapy would leave me infertile; that I might never be able to have kids; that I might die young.
There are now almost 200 Boobettes across the UK, but back then there were just a handful of us – now affectionately referred to as ‘the OGs’ – and I did my first talk at a school in south London with Maren, who co-founded CoppaFeel! and has since left the charity.
I found both kinship and community in a bunch of women who understood what it was to have hot flushes and other perimenopausal symptoms at just 30 years old.
Kris, too, became close to women who were going through similar things to her, including Laura Weatherall-Plane, who raised £100,000 for the charity before she died in 2017.
The nature of a terminal illness means that many of Kris’s friends have since died – in her memoir, she writes: ‘Those bitches all left me before a global pandemic.’
Her sense of humour and approachability are perhaps the things that have most endeared Kris to so many young people and ultimately made them listen to her boob-checking message. (CoppaFeel! is the third most-recognised breast cancer charity among 18- to 29-year-olds.)
When breast cancer was all pink ribbons and ladies in headscarves, she spoke to a younger generation through music, comedy and telling it like it is. She has jiggled her booty in a Little Mix video, posed in photo shoots with her cat, Lady Marmalade, and provided Instagram Stories updates on her post-surgery constipation.
In her book, she turns the heaviest of subjects into the most accessible of reads, peppering the lows of cancer with laugh-out-loud anecdotes, like the time her sister told her to get a spray tan because she looked ‘practically dead’.
‘Kris represents somebody who is so profoundly alive,’ says close friend Kay Buchan, who met the twins a decade ago, after losing her own mother to breast cancer. ‘She represents hope, she represents life; she is so real. She is also articulate, sparkly, multicoloured and quirky, and that is incredibly engaging.
‘And the other thing that makes her incredibly engaging is she’s absolutely f*cking hilarious and really naughty.’
That wicked sense of humour is also behind the title of her book, which stems from her Instagram handle and earlier blog, How to Glitter a Turd. ‘It essentially means looking at a situation that can’t necessarily be changed and shining a brighter, more positive light on it,’ Kris explains.
‘There’s nothing great about having a terminal diagnosis of cancer, but so much goodness has come out of my situation and I’m shining a light on those things.’
There is a powerlessness that comes from a cancer diagnosis that makes you want to do things – to change things; to make a difference.
While I was diagnosed early enough to be effectively ‘cured’ and am now nine years cancer-free, I still felt empowered to write about my experiences and to take on challenges to raise funds for CoppaFeel!
Kris was diagnosed at stage four, meaning her treatment was palliative from the off, and that initial powerlessness led her to start a charity to prevent women from being diagnosed at the incurable stage, like her.
She realised her efforts were worthwhile in early 2010 when she received an email from Jenny Steele, a then 26-year-old who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, having read about Kris in an article.
Jenny, now 38 and a mother of two, credits CoppaFeel! for saving her life and is a long-time supporter of the charity.
‘It wasn’t until Jenny’s email that I really was like “woah, so we really are making a difference”,’ says Kris. ‘It was a very defining moment.’
It was a moment so strong that it strengthened Kris’s mission, helping her to build a charity that now raises almost £2m a year and is backed by celebrities from Fearne Cotton, Giovanna Fletcher and Dermot O’Leary to Little Mix star Perrie Edwards, whose audience tallies with CoppaFeel!’s target 18-24 market.
However, her mission hasn’t just saved other people’s lives; it has also helped save her own, by giving her a purpose.
‘It has played as high as a 50 per cent role in my survival,’ Kris admits. ‘The body-mind connection is so incredibly strong. That real need to exist was something I didn’t have before, then having it and engaging in this purpose really helped me focus, and make my body listen. I do believe that if you feel well, then your body kind of reacts to that.’
Another huge part of her survival has been advocating for her own medical and alternative treatments – Kris is outspoken about her efforts to seek out and research the options that work best for her as an individual.
Several years into her life with cancer, she turned down a fresh round of chemo that would have worsened her quality of life and moved from London to Cornwall to be closer to her sister and find an oncologist who would better represent her needs.
The same year, Kris tattooed over her mastectomy scar with a tightrope walker named Tina (Maren’s nickname for her sister) and in 2020, had an elective mastectomy on her healthy breast, leaving her happily flat-chested.
In a special bonus chapter of the book, she writes: ‘I’m a fan of being flat, my worth is absolutely not measured by how many boobs I have or don’t have.’
Now Kris combines medical drugs and treatments with alternatives such as mistletoe therapy to treat tumours in multiple areas of her body, including her brain.
Right now, she describes her cancer as ‘fairly stable,’ though she is due a set of bone scan results soon.
Kris also urges other patients to know their own bodies and speak up in medical settings – after all, it was only because she was dismissed as ‘too young’ that the cancer was able to spread and become incurable before she was even diagnosed.
‘She is so in tune with her body and who she is and what she needs,’ says Kay.
It would be remiss to speak about Kris’s survival without mentioning her twin, now known by her married name, Maren Sheldon.
When CoppaFeel! began, the sisters had equal billing as co-founders, both involved in everything from organising challenges to lobbying the government. As the charity has grown and responsibility has transferred to the team, Maren has increasingly become known as ‘Kris’s sister’.
However, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of her role in her twin’s life. Quite simply, Maren is the Michelle to Kris’s Obama. She is a pillar of strength and a provider of calm. ‘When the going gets tough, she puts the kettle on,’ Kris writes in her book.
‘A lot of times, Maren is kind of in the shadows, but I literally wouldn’t have a shadow if it wasn’t for Maren,’ Kris says. ‘Everything I do is powered in some way by her.’
Kay adds that the twins, who live near their mother and older sister Maike, have ‘incredible trust’ and ‘an unbelievably loving link’, which has only strengthened since the birth of Maren’s son Herbie in 2019.
Kris was present at his birth and in her book writes: ‘ ‘When I held Herbie and breathed in all his magnificence (while Maren was having her bits sewn back up), he confirmed something very reassuring that I sort of already knew: that life goes on.’
It’s a theme that has also been key in the curation of CoppaFeel!
In the early days, Kris was advised to future-proof the charity so that it could survive long beyond her death, which she and her colleagues referred to as ‘going to the Maldives’.
In the end, she stepped down from her CEO duties voluntarily in 2017, handing the leadership to Natalie Haskell and remaining on board for certain tasks, like organising the annual FestiFeel gig with her celebrity friend Fearne Cotton.
But going to the Maldives is something that’s never far from Kris’s mind and she doesn’t shy away from talking about it. She points out in her book that ‘talking about death doesn’t bring it on faster’.
Kris is now researching the use of psychedelics as part of end-of-life care and a way to combat fear.
‘Confronting something is always better than hiding it away,’ she says, of death. ‘The more I research it, the more at peace I am with it. But having said that, there are definitely moments where I’m like, “am I okay with it?”‘
While the pandemic may have brought many of us closer to our own mortality, Kris is deeply concerned about its as-yet-unknown impact.
‘A lot of labs were repurposed for Covid and cancer research was shut down for a while,’ she says. ‘It’s obviously going to have an impact on the treatments I might be offered at some point so it’s horrific. Cancer was the forgotten ‘C’ word during Covid and it’s still killing way more people than coronavirus. I don’t know why cancer has never been called a pandemic.’
Just as people in the future will want to read about life during Covid times, Kris hopes her book will provide a ‘slice of history’ where people can learn about life with cancer at a time when it no longer represents a death sentence.
Her book will be a physical legacy, but she hopes her main legacy will be CoppaFeel! and its role in ensuring cancer is diagnosed early. Aside from that, she also really wants people to know she lived a happy life.
“I don’t want people to say “it’s a shame she died at that age”,’ she says. ‘Of course it’s a shame when anyone dies, but I want people to say “she did epic stuff – epic sh*t!”. I want people to remember that I was genuinely content.’
Epic sh*t? She has plenty more up her sleeve, but in the last 12 years, Kris Hallenga has been a guest at 10 Downing St., projected her very own cancer campaign onto the Parliament building, written a book, starred in a BBC Three documentary, run a half marathon (she hates running), completed a 100-mile bike ride, a 24-hour trampoline bounce-a-thon, a night-time walking marathon and several gruelling multi-day treks in far-flung places.
Oh, and saved a lot of lives. It doesn’t get much more epic than that.
Kris Hallenga’s Glittering A Turd: How Surviving The Unsurvivable Taught Me To Live published by Unbound is out in hardback today, £12.99
Main pic of Kris: Jenna Foxton
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