It is almost seven years to the day that Kris Hallenga had her left breast removed. She was 23.
She had been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, and as she says: “There is no stage five.”
Kris, whose symptoms had been repeatedly dismissed by her GP due to her age, became determined to use her experience for positive change.
So, months after being diagnosed, she set up CoppaFeel!, a breast cancer awareness and education charity aimed at young women. They received charity status on the very same day that she had her mastectomy.
Kris, now 30, has decided to get a mastectomy tattoo, inviting The Huffington Post UK along to join her.
“I’ve been thinking about having a tattoo on my mastectomy area for ages, but I’ve just been a bit of a chicken,” she told HuffPost UK, before heading to Happy Sailor tattoo parlour in Shoreditch, east London.
“This is my first tattoo, but, I’ll caveat that because when you have radiotherapy... they have to make little dots on you and they are little tattoos - so I am covered in eight little dots.
“They are my first ever tattoos but they are really pants and for a really crappy reason. This is my decision to have a tattoo and I’m in control of this tattoo.”
Kris asked Fearne Cotton, her friend and CoppaFeel! ambassador, to design the tattoo. “I am honoured to be asked by my lovely friend Kris,” Fearne revealed, joking that she was a bit concerned about the pressure bit “because it has to be good”.
Initially Kris wanted a tattoo of a bridge as it symbolised “getting over something”, but the pair decided on a circus tightrope walker.
“I like the idea of the balance that I like to strike with work, running CoppaFeel! is very hard work, and balancing that off with still having a life and then balancing cancer within all of that,” said Kris, not to mention her penchant for fancy dress and a certain ring master costume which is her favourite.
The tightrope walker is called ‘Tina’, which is a nickname given to Kris by her twin sister, Maren, because many people mistakenly call Kris, whose full name is Kristin, ‘Kristina’. ‘Kristina’ was shortened to ‘Tina’.
Kris is often asked to describe how it felt to be diagnosed with cancer, but still struggles to put the experience into words.
“That moment was just such a blur and you’re not just hit with the news, you’re hit with a lot of facts and information, and none of it goes in,” she told HuffPost UK. “I was in a really small room at the time and I felt so suffocated.”
It started to sink when she started telling people.
“You have to keep having to deal with it because the news keeps hitting you over and over again because of the amount of people that you have to tell,” she said. “I decided that everyone needed to know and they needed to know how I felt about it and how I was going to deal with it.”
“Telling my twin sister was probably the hardest person that I had to tell,” Kris added, explaining that her mum was already with her in the hospital. Kris’ father had died of a heart attack a few years earlier.
By the time Kris was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, it had mestatised and spread to her spine.
Stage four breast cancer cannot be cured, but it can be treated and controlled. Although just 15% of women will survive their cancer for five years or more after they are diagnosed at this stage, according to Cancer Research UK.
Kris has been living with breast cancer since she found her lump around eight years ago. It has since spread to her pelvis, hips and liver, and she’s also had two tumours in her brain.
Earlier this year, she was dealt the devastating news that her cancer was active again, growing in her bones and liver.
Kris has had a variety of treatment including surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and now is using a targeted unlicensed drug, through her oncologist, which appears to be working.
In a recent blog, where Kris updated friends and fans of CoppaFeel! on her health, she ended by saying: “I want to just say that where I am right now, and how I got here, didn’t take a ‘fight’ a ‘battle’ a ‘rebellion’ or any of the other annoying words that are being thrown around at the moment... it took patience, understanding, love, hugs and hard work. That’s what cancer means to me.
“I don’t see why we need to keep throwing these war words around. I am tired of them. Aren’t you?”
Many breast cancer patients decide to have a tattoo after a mastectomy in a bid to reclaim their bodies. While some are artistic designs, the vast majority are nipple tattoos as part of reconstruction.
John Newlands, senior cancer information nurse specialist at Macmillan Cancer Support said: “Medical tattooing, which was originally developed by plastic surgeons in the 1970s, is an option people can consider if they are undergoing nipple reconstruction after breast cancer surgery, and is now commonly offered by nurse specialists. Tattooing is used to match the colour of the nipple and areola of the other breast.
“People who choose to opt for tattooing as a part of nipple reconstruction say that they feel it gives them a more natural look and can help to restore self-confidence, feelings of femininity, attractiveness and sexuality.”
He urges any women looking to have an artistic tattoo to be aware of possible risk factors.
“It’s important that women who have had surgery for breast cancer remain breast aware. Redness or a rash around the nipple, skin or scar area may be an early sign of a reoccurrence of breast cancer. An artistic tattoo could potentially hide this sign. Any woman considering having an artistic tattoo should discuss this with their breast team first.”