Breast Cancer Survivor Tara Aitken
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 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 this woman’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 Chilton’s Breast 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 Michelle Azu, MD, FACS, Director of Breast Surgery, 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, FACP, Atlantic Health System’s Medical Director of Community Oncology. 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. 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 – all provided at Chilton.
“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.”
According to Dr. Azu, Chilton offers a collaborative, patient-centered approach that blends the academic side of medicine with personalized, compassionate care. Specialists representing every major discipline meet regularly to discuss and plan treatment, while patients receive all of the cancer services they need in one building – from diagnostic imaging through treatment.
Tara has a long road ahead, but takes each stride with inspiring strength and resolve.
“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.”
“You are your best health care advocate,” stated Dr. Azu, who advises women to perform a breast self-exam every month and consult with a physician if something doesn’t feel right. “If Tara had waited another year, it may have changed the picture dramatically. She played a proactive role in saving her own life.”
Tara and her family have embraced every milestone during her recovery along with exciting plans for the future.
“I have a team of doctors who are fighting for me and we’re headed in a great direction,” said Tara. “I have a beautiful life to live. And I owe it all to Chilton.”
Mammography can save lives. Please get screened or encourage a friend to get screened today!
For more information about The Breast Center at Chilton Medical Center, or to schedule an appointment, call us at 973-829-7935.