“You have cancer” are words no one wants to hear, let alone weeks before your wedding. For Jennifer Finkelstein, this was her reality in 2005 when her doctor confirmed her worst suspicions: invasive breast cancer.  Shocked with this newfound diagnosis, Jennifer could not believe that at 32 years old, she would undergo a mastectomy and chemotherapy.  Jennifer tirelessly researched for support but could not connect with anyone, personally or professionally, who shared a similar diagnosis at such a young age.

To fill this critical need for a peer-to-peer group, Jennifer established the 5 Under 40 Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support to women under 40 years of age facing breast cancer, or who have been identified as carriers of the BRCA mutation.  With over 1 in 8 women diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and as the leading cause of death in women under 40, 5 Under 40 is dedicated to strengthening survivorship.  

From medical and wellness services that include breast MRI’s, mammograms and nutritional counseling, to beauty treatments that include master wig classes and professional makeup lessons, to educational services that include support groups and meet-ups, 5 Under 40 provides a variety of resources and vital tools necessary for early detection, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

To continue the extraordinary work of the foundation, 5 Under 40 will be hosting their annual “For Her Future” Gala on Wednesday, April 3rd in New York City, with proceeds benefitting 5 Under 40’s medical, wellness, beauty and educational services.

Thrive was lucky enough to chat with 5 Under 40 founder Jennifer Finkelstein on how the organization was born, her advice for those diagnosed and more.

Can you tell us about your breast cancer story and the inspiration behind 5 Under 40? 

Jennifer Finkelstein (JF): In 2005, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32, just weeks before my wedding. I was awestruck and unable to connect with anyone else who shared a shocking breast cancer diagnosis so young. The critical peer support and information network I desperately sought was non-existent to the under 40 patient population. The following week, I found what I was searching for when, through a friend, I was introduced to Michal Alibayof, who also was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32. The deep bond that ensued and support Michal provided proved a powerful tool for my healthy recovery and survival. Together, we dreamed of one day being able to help and inspire other young women faced with this disease. In June 2011, Michal received a second recurrence of breast cancer and as a result, I fulfilled our dream by establishing the 5 Under 40 Foundation; a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support to women under 40 facing breast cancer. On Valentine’s Day of 2012, Michal devastatingly passed away at the age of 42. Her generous and loving spirit lives on in her proudest achievement, her beautiful children, Samantha, 22 and Jonny, 18. Honoring her legacy has become my life’s work. To date, we’ve funded over 500 women in six and a half years.

What is the #1 mission of 5 Under 40 and how is the foundation striving to meet its mission today?

JF: 5 Under 40’s mission is to provide medical, wellness, educational and beauty services to women under the age of 40 who have been diagnosed with breast cancer or have a BRCA mutation. We focus on a woman’s whole being in order to empower, foster hope and improve the quality of life for women in the face of this disease. 5 Under 40 has identified 5 psychological issues that make a diagnosis under the age of 40 a significant emotional challenge: fertility, sense of isolation, raising young children, managing career growth and dating. Here is an example of the ways we meet our mission today: We remain the only breast cancer organization in NY and NJ making a two-year commitment to fund services to eligible recipients. 

What are some of the resources and services that 5 Under 40 provides?

JF: Some of our most requested funded services are mental health sessions, accompanying and purchasing human hair wigs, occupational therapy, physical therapy, private therapeutic yoga sessions, Chinese acupuncture, mastectomy medical massage and breath work sessions are available weekly and bi-weekly. Our menu of 30 services, provided by our network of leading national experts, is customized and ranked according to each woman’s preference. 5 Under 40 also provides a peer match program and has joined forces for a common cause by co-hosting “The Young Breast Cancer Survivorship Symposium” with Weill Cornell Breast Center biannually with their oncologists, psychiatrists, reproductive endocrinologists and exercise experts. They school our recipients on advances in premenopausal breast cancer and the issues we face in survivorship. All of the physicians donate their time to our recipients regardless of where they’re being treated.

What has been the most memorable moment in starting 5 Under 40?

JF: The most memorable moment at 5 Under 40 occurred when all of our recipients took the stage at the end of our very first gala in January 2016. It was unexpected and we couldn’t believe how many of us there were. We received a standing ovation from over 350 people including physicians, celebrities, and some of the most successful business leaders in NYC. Never to be forgotten.

Any advice for someone facing a cancer diagnosis?

JF: Find the right oncologist. She/he will be a part of your life for a very long time. Where you’re treated and by whom can make all of the difference during treatment and survivorship. If you’re not comfortable with your first choice of physician, seek a second opinion. In the event it’s necessary, get a third one. You will not heal if you constantly doubt your physician’s recommendations.  My “Top Ten” tips for someone facing a cancer diagnosis is as follows: 

  1. Find the right oncologist. She/he will be a part of your life for a very long time. Where you’re treated and by whom can make all of the difference during treatment and survivorship. If you’re not comfortable with your first choice of physician, seek a second opinion. In the event it’s necessary, get a third one. You will not heal if you’re constantly doubting your physician’s recommendations.
  2. Align yourself with a therapist as soon as possible with someone who sees women in the throes of a cancer diagnosis.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Seeking help is a sign of strength; not weakness.
  4. Speak up. Trust your gut and leave no stone unturned. If something doesn’t feel right at diagnosis and you feel like further action needs to be taken, verbalize your concerns.
  5. Keep reminding yourself everyone’s cancer is different. Cancer Genomics is revolutionizing the way people are being treated for cancer. It’s becoming much more personalized. Stop comparing your cancer to someone with a less favorable outcome.
  6. You will face surgical, treatment and pharmacologic decisions that need to be made fast. The doctor will not most likely tell you what you do. She’ll/He’ll present you with a menu of options. At that time, ask the physician, “What would you do if I was your daughter or sister?”
  7. Try your best to remain positive. Have faith that people are living longer than ever before with a cancer diagnosis. Have faith we will see a future where cancer becomes a manageable and chronic disease, no longer a death sentence.
  8. Do not ever feel that you did something to deserve this. This happened by chance. Bad luck. Everyone has something.
  9. Remember a strong support network goes a very long way.
  10. Do not ever forget, you’re a person, not a statistic. Not one patient in any study is “You.” Don’t ever let a doctor speak to you as though you are.

What is your biggest hope for the foundation?

JF: My biggest hope for the foundation is we’ll be in every state in the US serving real women, in real time, that are newly diagnosed with breast cancer and/or those with a BRCA mutation.

Your upcoming gala is in April in NYC, what do you celebrate or hope to achieve during the evening?

JF: My wish for the gala is for the public to have an opportunity to witness the magic of 5 Under 40 creating a call to action. We need people and corporations to donate now more than ever. Our needs are growing as women are being diagnosed younger and younger. Women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40 are at highest risk of mortality. We present with the most rare and aggressive types, have no screening protocol in place, and are more often than not, turned away when we tell a doctor we feel a lump or pain. They often ask us to come back at a later time in our menstrual cycle or give us a 6-month period to return. By then, it’s often too late.

For more on Jennifer’s amazing story or on 5 Under 40, visit: 5under40.org and follow along on Instagram at @5Under40.