Advanced Breast Cancer: The part of the journey no one talks about. Here’s how you can help.

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Most folks are aware that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but you may not know that Wednesday, Oct. 13 is especially significant.

It’s the day we recognize the impact of advanced breast cancer, the part of the journey that no one understands, few people talk about, and it gets less than 5% of breast cancer research funding. Advanced breast cancer, also known as metastatic or stage 4 breast cancer is when the cancer has spread from the breast to other parts of the body.

So metastatic patients have embraced a ribbon of three colors, green, teal and pink. The green represents renewal, the teal stands for healing, and the pink tells us where the cancer originated.

Our community is so fortunate that it’s home to the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester. On Wednesday, the coalition is holding its 18th annual seminar called Advanced Breast Cancer: Tools for the Journey. It will be held virtually from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and will cover everything from medical management of the illness to access to clinical trials. Click here to register.

Then on Wednesday night, landmarks in Rochester are among the more than 225 across the country that will light up in the colors of metastatic breast cancer, pink, green and teal. The event is called Light Up MBC.

The effort is to raise awareness and funding to fight advanced breast cancer. Fairport, NY resident, Andrea Reynolds is a New York ambassador for Light Up MBC. The mother of two was just 31 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five years after finishing treatment, the cancer returned and had spread to her bones. Now she’s fighting hard for the research dollars to save her life and thousands like her.

“I think the culture around breast cancer has become pink everything, put pink on everything,” Reynolds said. “People think they’re supporting their heart is in the right place but they don’t realize where the money goes or sometimes things with pink on them don’t really go anywhere. It’s just a marketing tool. So it’s really important that we get the people who really do want to support breast cancer, which is pretty much everybody, to put their money and their support in a place that’s going to be more effective."

While only 5% of breast cancer research funding goes toward the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, the illness accounts for 98% of breast cancer deaths. If you’d like to donate to research for MBC, you can donate to METAvivor, the non-profit group that raises funds exclusively for metastatic breast cancer research.

The Breast Cancer Coalition’s efforts to raise awareness about metastatic breast cancer are the oldest in the state of New York. In addition to providing educational as well psycho-social support, BCCR also provides grants to local breast cancer researchers.

To donate to BCCR, click here.

There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer. The average life expectancy is three years. But that does not mean this is a journey without hope. The story of Palmyra resident, Pam Polashenski is proof of that. She appears to be the picture of health. The athletic 52-year-old doctor is an avid volleyball player, hiker, boater and in her spare time, she loves waterfall rappelling in Costa Rica.

But in October of 2018, she learned the breast cancer she had tamed a year before was back — spreading with a maniacal virulence throughout her back and bones. She found out just an hour before a volleyball game.

"And on the team was my husband and one of my daughters,” Polashenski said. “And all of my daughters were local at the time, so I asked the other two to come join us for a drink where we play volleyball. And we kind of went into an unused room and I told them."

That day marked the beginning of a years-long effort to find drugs to keep the cancer at bay. By the summer of 2021, chemo to keep her cancer at bay stopped working.

"And I was both kind of preparing myself for the end of my life but also kind of advocating hard to get my hands on this medication that my oncologist said could be a game-changer," Polashenski said.

The medication is a drug effective in lung cancer patients with a rare gene mutation, a mutation that Polashenski shares. That drug had never before been tested on other types of cancers. Initially, her insurer refused to pay for the drug which costs $18,000 a month. And the drug manufacturer refused to provide it for free.

"And this was happening in a week when I was really doing poorly. I was started on 24 hour, around-the-clock oxygen. I couldn’t walk unassisted. My daughters were helping me dress myself. It looked bad,” Polashenski said.

And then, in an eleventh-hour decision, her insurer finally agreed to pay for the drug that would prove to be nothing short of miraculous.

"So I just remember on Monday — I started it on Thursday — a fog lifting from my head. We checked my oxygen levels and I was no longer needing the oxygen so I was able to come off that, and I was walking."

And weeks after receiving the drug she was taking four-mile hikes and sliding down water slides with her nephew at Seabreeze.

It’s important to note that pam has a rare gene mutation, and this new medication is specific to her mutation. But her story does serve as proof that answers lie in a lab with a researcher who has the funds to find them.