Each year, nearly a quarter of a million women in America are diagnosed with breast cancer. The second most common cancer diagnosis among American women, it’s a disease that impacts many. But there is good news: today there are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., and great strides have been made to improve treatments and diagnostics.
Helping lead that fight is the Birmingham-based Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama (BCRFA). In the 20 years that the BCRFA has existed, it has given more than $5.8 million to fund research at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. All of the donations raised by the foundation through community events, philanthropy, and fundraising stay at UAB to support the Cancer Center’s nationally recognized research programs. Protective Life Corporation supports the BCRFA and its groundbreaking work.
It’s a cause close to the heart of Protective Life Corporation employee, Phil Passafiume, Senior Vice President and Director of Fixed Income. That’s because his wife, Leslie, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed at age 42 during a routine mammogram. At the time, their daughter Katlyn was in second grade, and the family rallied together as Leslie underwent a lumpectomy and radiation.
“Sometimes you don’t realize what’s most important until you go through something like this,” Leslie says. “It really strengthened our faith and our family, and made me stronger as an individual.” In 2011, the Passafiumes were again challenged when Leslie was diagnosed a second time. This time, she underwent a double mastectomy, but thanks to early detection, did not have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation.
“Protective was unbelievably supportive when Leslie was receiving treatment,” Phil says. “As an employer, they put family first, and I try to do the same now with my employees. As difficult as my wife’s illness was, it’s made me a better person.”
It also guided him to leadership with the BCRFA. Phil first became involved as a player in the Foundation’s annual golf tournament, its biggest fundraising event. Last year he joined the board of directors.
“It’s incredible to learn about the research that the BCRFA supports,” says Phil. The UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center uses BCRFA dollars as seed money to attract grant funding, so every dollar that goes to the BCRFA is leveraged into $16. For instance, monies raised by the BCRFA led to the renewal of a $11.5 million breast cancer research grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The BCRFA was founded in 1995 by Dolly O’Neal, a Birmingham mother who had been treated for breast cancer, and Bruce Sokol, whose wife D.D. was undergoing treatment. Though both have since passed away, their legacies are carried on through the work of the Foundation.
Among projects funded by the BCRFA: UAB’s microarray facility, where scientists are working to determine the genetic footprint of breast cancer, and the recruitment of world-class scientists. The impact is felt daily through the research that has lead to many clinical trials, in which patients have access to cutting-edge therapies.
This year the Dolly Ashton O’Neal Triple Negative Breast Cancer Personalized Medicine Program launched. Funded by the BCRFA, the program supports approximately 20 patients per year with personalized breast cancer treatment plans based on genome analysis, among other things.
The news is good: Thanks to advances in detection, treatment, and prevention, more people are thriving after diagnosis. That includes Leslie Passafiume, who is healthy and enjoys spending time with family and serving their church. Today she is a passionate promoter who encourages women to get regular screenings and to advocate for their health.
Phil encourages people to learn about the work of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama. One easy way to support the BCRFA is through their specialty license plate, which can be purchased through the Alabama DMV. “There are so many ways to support the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and this is an easy one that makes a big impact,” Phil says.
And for people who are newly diagnosed? Leslie says, “Keep the faith — there is always hope. And know that there are some amazing scientists fighting for you.”