Support for younger women with breast cancer

Special education teacher Tara Aitken was 32 years old in the prime of her life and focused on raising her two young boys when the unthinkable happened.

"I ended up having two masses in my right breast, both cancerous, and it was going to need surgery and quite frankly immediately," she said.

While young women make up a small percentage of all breast cancer cases, the number is still significant. The American Cancer Society estimates more than 25,000 women under 45 will be diagnosed this year.

But that doesn't make it any less isolating.

"I was completely floored," Aitken, who is now 33 and in remission, said. "Immediately all these thoughts go into your head: I've never met anyone in their 30s that has breast cancer."

But that changed shortly after Aitken's diagnosis when she was introduced to the group 5 Under 40.

"We come with a unique set of issues: fertility, managing career growth, relationships," said Jennifer Finkelstein, a founder of 5 Under 40.

She understands those unique challenges, because she lived them. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 at 32, just weeks before her wedding.

"Instead of a honeymoon I had chemotherapy... and no one could identify with me," Finkelstein said. "I asked my mother: 'Mom, find me someone under 70, under 60, under 50, 40.' I could not meet anyone."

She did eventually meet Michal Alibayof, who also got her diagnosis at 32, and the two decided to start a group for young breast cancer patients. While Michal passed away in 2012, 5 Under 40 lives on with Finkelstein and four other survivors at the helm.

Since 2011 they have worked with hundreds of women, as young as 23 years old, helping them find everything from top doctors and medical massage specialists, to the beauty products that can best combat the effects of harsh cancer drugs. One of their most popular services is getting women high-quality wigs.

"When we found a wig that I put on that day, I looked in the mirror and I remember with Jen I was just crying. It's self-worth, it's confidence," Aitken said. "Especially as a young mother, I have two little boys, a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, how do I explain to them that mommy doesn't look like the other mommies? It's more than just myself. It's my children, so that is such an important piece."

But perhaps most importantly, Finkelstein said, her group provides a listening ear, a friendly face, or a shoulder to cry on.

"The one-on-one contact is everything," she said. "Looking a young woman in the eye to say: 'I'm not a health care professional, but I've been there.'"

"When you feel like you can't do it, someone else will be there to pick up that strength for you and carry you along if you can't walk yourself, and that's what 5 Under 40 does," Aitken said.

As the organization grows to help more women, they're trying to ramp up their fundraising efforts. Their next event is October 22 at Flywheel in Astor Place. All proceeds will go to the organization.

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