“Cancer, the gym and me: how an unexpected diagnosis inspired me to get strong”

Posted by for Long Reads

Looking for some workout inspiration? Welcome to our new column, ‘This is what strong looks like’. 

This week Kris Hallenga, the CEO and founder of breast cancer charity CoppaFeel, explains why exercise makes her feel alive – no treadmill required…

What is your workout regime?

I try to go to a yoga class and for a one to one reformer pilates session at least once a week, and the rest of my fitness involves walking on the many beaches I am surrounded by here in Cornwall. I love sampling new classes and try to keep things varied – I get bored too easily! I am lucky to be surrounded by yoga classes offering all sorts of different styles. I am happiest after a good old stretch on the mat. 

I have also gotten really into cold water swimming, which is truly a miracle since I hate the cold and am forever wrapped in blankets. Yet swimming in the sea brings me endless joy and exhilarates me like no other fitness activity ever has. It makes me feel SO alive. And when I am not in the sea, I am bobbing on it on my stand up paddleboard. 

What inspired you to begin your regime?

I have had an on-off relationship with the gym ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago. Straight after my diagnosis, going through gruelling treatments that made my body unrecognisable made me lose all confidence in “working out”. I didn’t feel like I belonged with the healthy people in gyms. That was until a consultant at a hospice I visited asked me why I wasn’t exercising. I didn’t really have an excuse and from then on, I started being more active. I started to have faith in my body and that made me appreciate it all the more. 

It was with stubbornness and sheer stupidity that I took part in a 10km run, swiftly followed by a half marathon despite the fact I hate running. I have since hung up my running shoes and have adopted a much more mellow work out regime that suits my body, and my mind, far better. 

coppafeel team running a marathon

What was it like on your first ever day at the gym?

I felt like an alien.Thankfully, I had a nice chap to teach me how to use all the equipment and luckily it had an incredible hydrotherapy pool, so really when I told people I was “going to the gym” I was floating in a blissfully warm whirlpool. The gym was minutes from the Boob HQ office in London which made it harder to find an excuse not to go. The more I went, the more I felt like I belonged, and I could tell my body appreciated it.

What’s been your best moment so far?

Crossing the finish line at the Bath Half Marathon. My golly, I truly never thought I’d see the day, especially after being told by my oncologist in the early days that running would be a bad idea. But some serious spine treatments later and there I was, hauling my ass over that line. I cried, of course, which was less embarrassing than hyperventilating on the finish line of the 10k I’d done the year before. Not a good look.

… And your worst?

Hyperventilating on the finish line of a 10km. I’d been on breakfast TV that morning promoting a film I had a starring role in (playing myself) so people had watched and recognised me. I quickly dashed into the St Johns Ambulance tent to catch my breath before anyone could see me. The last thing I wanted was sympathy after triumphantly finishing my first ever running event! 

kris hallenga on a bike ride
“I have never once regretted a workout”

How do you motivate yourself when you don’t want to go to the gym?

I try to remind myself that I have never once regretted doing a work out. I don’t go to the gym now, but I do attend classes which is great because I can choose a class that suits my mood on that day. I always know that when I really don’t want to go, that is actually the time that I really should. So then I do. And I feel immensely proud of myself for forcing my ass out the door.  

Some women feel intimidated at the gym. What’s your best advice for getting through this?

A good playlist and no eye contact. Just pretend you’re the only one there and remember how much effort and courage it took to get there in the first place. You might think people are watching you, but actually, they’re not. They are probably far more interested in the buff guy in the corner making groaning noises every time he lifts a tyre. 

kris hallenga mountain hike
“Try to work out what strong really means to you. Is it strength in your body, or your mind, or both?”

What should we remember when looking at other people’s fitness regimes on social media?

This goes not just for fitness posts but for everything you see on social media – it’s not always true! We like to show the best version of everything, which isn’t necessarily how life really is. What works for one person, doesn’t always work for another. 

“Stay in your lane. Comparison kills creativity and joy,” as the mighty smart Brene Brown once said. 

What’s your advice for other women who are looking to get strong?

Try to work out what strong really means to you. Is it strength in your body, or your mind, or both? For me, mental strength is way more important than how strong my body is – although physical strength is also important because my body has to deal with cancer on a daily basis. But without a strong mind, I can’t work on my body. Remember that you are in charge of you. Don’t expect huge changes quickly, and celebrate small successes. You will get there in time, have faith. 

kris hallenga paddle boarding
“Appreciate what your body CAN do, rather than focussing on what it can’t”

What does strong mean to you?

Appreciating what your body CAN do, rather than focussing on what it can’t. My body is fighting cancer on a daily basis, it can’t produce babies and it hates the cold. Yet I can stand up out of bed, I can walk myself to the loo, I can dance like a moron, and I bizarrely ran a half marathon and cycled 100 miles on Cornish hills on the back of a tandem bike. That’s pretty bloomin’ strong.

All images courtesy of Kris Hallenga

Stylist Strong is a fitness brand specialising in strength training specifically tailored for women. Our classes are designed to build both physical and mental strength in a smart and informed way.

So, whether you’re a beginner or already have strength-training experience, Stylist Strong has a class to suit you. Come and try our strength-based classes at our own purpose-built studio at The AllBright Mayfair. 

Share this article