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On the 19th of February 2009, a 23 year old Kris was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three months later she and her sister Maren set up our charity. Today marks nine years since Kris’ diagnosis and a lot has happened in that time. So we thought we’d speak to the people who started it all about the highs, lows and questionable fashion choices of the last nine years.
Maren: I’m the other twin-half to Kris. We shared a womb and have shared much of our lives together as well. When Kris was diagnosed we were both 23 and I lived 250 miles away from her. I was embarking on a career in Garden Design whilst she was plotting her next trip to a far flung country. Since then cancer has pretty much directed our lives and sent us in directions we hadn’t anticipated to go in during our 20s and early 30s. CoppaFeel! and everything that our charity stands for came from a need to right an almighty wrong and Kris and I don’t take any of its success stories lightly. In fact, we can still be found grinning like kids every time we discover our reminder labels in our bras at Tesco.
Kris: First of all, to think we have come so far now that people may actually not know the story behind CoppaFeel! fills me with a lot of joy, because it means we have grown a lot and that way more people are now supporting us and listening to what we have to say! That time has gone by in a flash and we have been pretty busy! I have been a founder and CEO of a national charity, a columnist, a London Olympics torchbearer, a festival organiser, receiver of an honorary Doctorate in Public Administration, winner of a Pride of Britain Award, cat owner, and most recently a resident of Cornwall and owner of a vintage coffee and cake van, as well as continuing to be just a girl in her twenties (now thirties!) trying to get by in this weird old world like the rest of us!
Kris: So, back in 2008 when I was just 22, I felt a lump in my boob that was hard, painful and a bit odd. The thing is, I had no idea how long it had been there, because I had never touched my boobs regularly! I had spotted unusual stains in my bra and felt sharp pains in my armpit but I ignored them because I had no idea breast cancer could affect someone as young as me. Two not-so-successful trips to the GP lead to finally pushing for a non-urgent referral to a breast clinic for further investigation. I remember calling the clinic every day to get a cancellation so I didn’t have to wait 6 weeks for an appointment and scored myself a visit within 10 days. I was met with a similar attitude at the breast clinic, again they suggested that this was very likely hormonal and linked to the mini-pill I was taking. They had me wait another three weeks to see if coming off the pill entirely would calm things down. Alas, it didn’t and by this point I was waking up with blood stained t-shirts. Fast forward to 19th February 2009 when I was finally diagnosed with breast cancer. A week later I was told it wasn’t just primary breast cancer, but that it had already spread to my spine – deeming it incurable, stage 4, advanced “YOU ARE BUGGERED” cancer. So today marks that day that have been living with this naughty incurable disease for 9 years.
Maren: When Kris was diagnosed I felt a mix of emotions but mostly fear and anger. I just couldn’t understand how something so major hadn’t been picked up earlier and that we had been lead to believe for so long that her lump was nothing to worry about. I feared for her life and my life without my twin sister – which is a natural reaction when you hear about a cancer diagnosis. I knew very little about breast cancer and our future suddenly felt very scary.
Kris: I actually took it pretty calmly all things considered! Obviously I cried a lot, I was in shock, I was angry and I was scared. But above all else, I knew I was going to be fine because I had no reason to believe I wouldn’t be. Admittedly, I did stupidly google stage 4 breast cancer survival and learnt that the average length people like me survive for is about 2 years. But somehow I managed to brush that aside and remember what my friend Niall told me; “You beat the odds in getting this disease at 23, so you will beat the odds in surviving it too”. He’s usually right so I decided I’d take him at his word. Thing is, if I knew then what I know now, if I had experienced then what I have experienced by now, I think I would have been scared frozen. I am unsure whether I could have taken it all on. Naivety is pretty handy in some situations! On the day I found out the first bit of news, my family and I carried on our day as planned, visiting family, going to the shops, almost pretending as if we hadn’t just been told some life changing news. I remember everything about that day, like eating a lemon roulade that my Aunty Rosemary had bought us. It’s weird that I can’t remember important stuff, but can remember that!
Maren: I read a lot – I was mostly trying to find success stories that would bring us some hope. I felt like we needed to arm ourselves with the best understanding and knowledge about cancer. I experimented with a lot of cooking to try and make sure Kris’ body was getting fully nourished – even when she didn’t feel like eating. I was probably quite annoying but it was the only way I felt like I could help.
Kris: I can give you a whole list of reasons that CoppaFeel! needed to be set up:
1. No one had ever told me to check my boobs, or that breast cancer could happen to me at 23.
2. No organisation existed that targeted young people with the important lessons I mentioned in point one.
3. Everyone deserves the best chance to survive breast cancer, and being diagnosed early means you are more likely to survive and thrive and live long beyond this disease. It is curable, people!
4. I had nothing better to do.
5. I needed to channel my frustrations, creativity, free time in to something that could help others. I may have missed the boat on early diagnosis, but I wanted to ensure others wouldn’t.
Kris: Pin pointing just one highlight is really hard. I can whittle it down to this: my proudest moment for CoppaFeel! was the very first time someone told us that our charity ensured they got an early diagnosis, and thus that they had been given the best prognosis and are still alive today, living cancer free. My proudest personal moment is undoubtedly being awarded an honorary doctorate by Nottingham Trent Uni. This is such a big highlight for me because I was being honoured for my hard work, not my disease and the way I had gone about surviving. Receiving the accolade meant I was being recognised for being a CEO, a boss woman, for changing lives and for (a lot of) hard work. It’s also particularly special because I didn’t go to university, which really validated the fact that you don’t have to have a degree to do great things!
Maren: I honestly don’t have any regrets about any of the big decisions and choices we’ve made over the years. We had to take some big grown up risks but never were they taken lightly. There were countless sleepless nights, long hours and an occasional tear shed that my heart probably could have done without but I think these come hand in hand with running something you’re so passionate about.
Kris: There have been so many cringe times, too many to mention! But as Maren says, and as the famous Dappy song goes… “NO REGRETS”. The truth is, we have learnt from bad moments, and swiftly moved on to do to better things. The most cringe moment for me was probably modelling in underwear for a press shoot, on the balcony of a fancy London hotel suite early in the morning. That’s when I asked myself, “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS KRIS?” Believe it or not I don’t actually like being in the limelight (shock horror) and although it was highly necessary for me to promote my story at the start to make the charity more known, it’s nice for other voices to now come forward, thanks to our Boobettes and our growing team. Hearing Sophie, our Health and Education Comms Director, get interviewed on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show the other day made me squeal with pride!
Kris: Denim skirt and tights aren’t cool for as long as you might think they are. Don’t think for one second think that you can’t do this, because you can. More than anything I would like to have the attitude from the 23 year old me, today, so that I could face any demons the way I did back then, with not much care or fear. I was bloody fearless! But the denim short skirt can stay in 2009, ta.
Maren: Be prepared to work hard, to lose some sleep, make mistakes, learn lots and surround yourself with good people. And once in a while step back and look at what you’ve done – and celebrate with cake, of course.
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