‘I was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer at 23, after being told that I was too young to have the disease’
Kristin Hallenga says regular self-checks for suspicious symptoms could help save young women’s lives. Lisa Salmon reports
When Kristin Hallenga found a lump in her breast, she wasn't too worried. She was only 22 and breast cancer was an older woman's disease, she thought.
But her lump was indeed cancer and, more than two years later, after misdiagnosis by two GPs who also thought she was too young to have the disease, the feisty 25-year-old has had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and the cancer has spread to her spine.
Rather than feeling sorry for herself, Hallenga turned her devastating cancer blow into something positive.
Just months after her diagnosis in 2009, aged 23, she started CoppaFeel! ( www.coppafeel.org), a breast cancer awareness charity aimed at encouraging younger women to learn the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, and to become familiar with how their breasts look and feel normally.
“I was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer that had spread to my spine eight months after I'd been told I was too young to have this disease,” says Kristin.
“I set CoppaFeel up because young people like me aren't checking their breasts, don't know what to look and feel for, and don't know that breast cancer can happen at our age. These are all really important things that people need to know.
“I was very unlucky that I was told I was okay by two doctors but I’ve ploughed my bitterness into the charity, and making sure it doesn't happen to anyone else.”
CoppaFeel! has just launched a ‘breast check' text reminder service, in which women give their breasts names and are reminded each month to check them, and is also running a poster campaign based on the iconic 1994 ‘Hello Boys' Wonderbra posters, but with the caption ‘Hello Boobs'.
While most young women won't be as unlucky as Kristin, encouraging regular checking means any problems can be detected early, and also ensures the habit becomes normal, which is beneficial as women move into the higher risk older age group.
Breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in UK women, and strongly related to age: 81% of cases occur in women aged 50 and over.
However, Cancer Research UK says breast cancer is also the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women under 35.
Around 2,100 cases of breast cancer occur in UK women under 40 each year — that's about 4% of all female breast cancer cases.
A survey just carried out by CoppaFeel! found that 21% (more than one million) of women aged between 18 and 29 have never checked their breasts for signs of breast cancer.
Kristin says that when she had pain in her armpit and found a lump, she had no idea how long it had been there because she didn't check her breasts.
“I didn't know the symptoms of breast cancer, and had I known it would have helped when I went to the doctor for the first time,” she says. “I was quite naive about the whole boob checking thing — you never think it's going to happen to you. When you're young, you don't think you need to look after your health.”
Kristin was diagnosed with cancer eight months after first visiting her GP, by which time the tumour was at stage four — the worst stage — and had spread to her spine.
She has responded well to treatment and is living with her cancer, and having monthly infusions to strengthen her bones.
“I beat the odds getting breast cancer in the first place — who's to say I can't beat the odds to get rid of it?” she asks.
This remarkable young woman is determined to get other young women into the good habit of regular self-checking, and stresses: “By educating the young people of today, we can shape the future of breast cancer survival.
“Knowledge is power, and this power will save lives. I only wish that someone shared this knowledge with me.”
She agrees that she's not “your typical breast cancer type”, but stresses that there should be no type, or age bias.
“I'm not saying breast cancer's going to happen at a young age, because it is rare, but arm yourself with knowledge,” Kristin says.
“Then, if you find it early, it can be treated successfully.”
For more information about CoppaFeel! and to sign up for the breast check text reminder service, go to www.coppafeel.org
what every woman should look for
Cancer Research UK says women should look out for:
- A lump or thickening in the breast — but remember that 90% of breast lumps are benign.
- A change in the size or shape of a breast.
- Dimpling of the skin.
- A change in the shape of the nipple, particularly if it turns in, sinks into the breast or becomes irregular in shape.
- A blood-stained nipple discharge.
- A rash on a nipple or surrounding area.
- A swelling or lump in the armpit.
- In the rare inflammatory breast cancer, the whole breast can look red and inflamed and can be very sore.
These signs do not necessarily mean cancer but should be checked by a doctor.