Keeping Nicole’s memory alive through Dana-Farber’s Gene and Zebrafish Displays

“I need to do something to keep myself busy, and to make the tears stop, even just for a little bit.” This was the thought that ran through my head over and over again. My friend Nicole was being treated at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute  for breast cancer, and she had just received devastating news from her doctor: the cancer had spread, and Nicole needed to begin hospice care.

I felt like the world was turning upside down, and I needed to feel more in control. My immediate thought was to fundraise on Nicole’s behalf. Supporting the critical research conducted by the brightest scientific minds at Dana-Farber would provide a small sense of control. I got the ball rolling to raise funds.

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Dana-Farber’s Gene Display, located in Dana-Farber’s Yawkey Center for Cancer Care, represents the real genetic information that researchers are using to develop cancer treatments.

As a Dana-Farber employee, I was very familiar with Dana-Farber’s Gene Display. Located in Dana-Farber’s Yawkey Center for Cancer Care, the display represents the real genetic information that researchers are using to develop cancer treatments. From a personal standpoint, I had always felt comforted by the display’s warm pink lights and the hundreds of people that had named genes to honor loved ones. It was a natural fit to launch fundraising efforts to take a stand against Nicole’s breast cancer. I created a Giving Page (an online fundraising web page) personalized it with Nicole’s story and our goal to raise $5,000, and sent an email with the Giving Page link to every person I knew on November 18, 2014. What happened next was extraordinary.

Nicole’s gene is proudly displayed in Dana-Farber’s Gene Display.
Nicole’s gene is proudly displayed in Dana-Farber’s Gene Display.

Nearly 100 people made gifts to Nicole’s fundraising page. On November 20, we hit our $5,000 goal. Collectively, we felt reassured knowing we were doing something special to honor Nicole during a time when she was struggling. Nicole was clear about what she wanted her gene to say – “Grateful for all the support. Let’s strive for a cure. Never give up!” Plans were quickly put in motion to install Nicole’s gene.

While we were planning for Nicole’s gene installation, gifts continued to flow, so we increased our goal to $8,000, and decided to name both a gene and a zebrafish for her. Dana-Farber’s Zebrafish Display is an amazing interactive display that is lit to look like the ocean tide, and it symbolizes the importance of zebrafish to the future of cancer research and treatment. Zebrafish and humans share many of the same genes, so zebrafish are vital to Dana-Farber researchers as they develop innovative treatments and therapies to save lives. The display features a large school of fish where you can name a fish and include a message that appears on a digital screen when the fish is touched. Nicole loved the idea of naming both, so I sent out another email to everyone I knew, and within days we hit the $8,000 mark. Our girl was smiling from ear to ear, and she felt so loved and supported.

Dana-Farber’s Interactive  Zebrafish Display symbolizes the importance of zebrafish to the future of cancer research and treatment.
Dana-Farber’s Interactive Zebrafish Display symbolizes the importance of zebrafish to the future of cancer research and treatment.

Nicole’s gene was installed November 26, 2014. She wasn’t strong enough to make the trip to Yawkey, so I took video and photos of the gene and sent them to her. She was so proud to see her name on the wall, and be a part of such an extraordinary fundraising effort. She passed away two weeks later on December 10, 2014. Her zebrafish was installed in early February 2015, and bears the beautiful message “Always in our hearts, we will continue to fight for a cure.”

Nicole’s zebrafish is proudly displayed in Dana-Farber’s Zebrafish Display located in the lobby of Dana-Farber’s Charles A. Dana Building.
Nicole’s zebrafish is proudly displayed in Dana-Farber’s Zebrafish Display located in the lobby of Dana-Farber’s Charles A. Dana Building.

Bringing Nicole’s family and friends together to name her gene and zebrafish was empowering, and in some ways therapeutic. Keeping Nicole’s generous spirit alive is so important to all of us, and knowing that the funds we raised will help fuel cancer research projects, now and in the future, helps the healing process.

I visit Nicole’s gene and zebrafish often to feel connected to her. Some visits are more emotional than others as my heart is still coping with Nicole being taken from us far too soon. Every time I see her gene and her zebrafish I can hear her laugh and see her smile, and I know she’d be so proud of our dedication to Dana-Farber’s mission.

We miss and love you so much, darling girl.

Katherine McIsaac
Assistant Director, Development Communications