Every now and then, a complete stranger passes through your life while making a very personal connection. That was precisely the case for Tara Aitken, a bustling preschool teacher and mother of two, who was inexplicably drawn to learning more about a celebrity chef’s battle with breast cancer. With a young family and healthy medical history, the disease was not even on her radar. But something about the chef’s story triggered a nagging suspicion that led Tara straight to the doctor’s office – and a path she never anticipated.
“After hearing her story, I remembered that I had a hard time nursing on my right breast,” she said. “So I started checking myself… and found a lump.”
Tara scheduled an appointment with her gynecologist, who immediately referred her to the Breast Center at Chilton Medical Center. Within a matter of hours, she received an ultrasound and a mammogram, which identified two masses and calcifications in her right breast.
“In that moment, my whole world flipped upside down,” she said.
Tara was back at the breast center the very next day for two biopsy procedures followed by a meeting with a breast surgeon who delivered the heartbreaking news: at 32 years old, Tara had breast cancer.
“I was shocked,” she declared. “I’m healthy. I’m athletic. I don’t smoke. I have two little kids. This was not supposed to happen.”
“It is rare for a woman in her thirties to have breast cancer, as the incidence of disease rises with age,” affirmed Michael Kane, MD, medical director of community oncology (Northwest) for Atlantic Health System. The vast majority of cases affect women over the age of 50, but younger women are not without risk – even those who do not have a genetic predisposition.
Due to the location of her tumors and risk for recurrence, Tara opted for a double mastectomy performed at Chilton Medical Center and her tumultuous journey began. The surgery went well, although Tara awoke to another crushing discovery; the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, confirming a Stage 2B diagnosis.
Despite the setback, Tara forged ahead with hope, optimism and unbridled tenacity.
She and her medical team mapped out the rest of her treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and reconstructive surgery.
“When you have cancer, you don’t want to drive an hour to New York,” asserted Tara, who resides in Wanaque. “Not when you have the best doctors and the best care right in your own neighborhood.”
“I never asked why me, but why now,” she said. “I did not imagine having breast cancer in my thirties, but it only makes me more determined to beat this and encourage other young women to listen to their instincts and take charge of their health.”
Tara and her family have embraced every milestone during her recovery along with exciting plans for the future. “I have a beautiful life to live. And I owe it all to Chilton.”