Grace and Gib: Best friends and brain cancer fighters

In honor of Brain Cancer Awareness Month, this is the story of Grace Orzechowski and Gabby Whitman, two best friends who decided that Grace’s brain cancer diagnosis wouldn’t be the beginning of an end. Instead, it’d be the thing that changed the trajectory of their lives; two young women who made being a “fighter” a way of life.

When you Google “Grace Orzechowski,” you’ll find words like “strong,” “leader,” “role model,” and “unapologetically herself.” Diagnosed with brain cancer at just 22, you can add the word “fighter”—tattooed in script across her arm—to the list of words that describe Grace best.

Grace at the 2019 Payson Center for Cancer Care Rock N Race 5K in Concord, NH. Grace is wearing the t-shirt for her team “Fighting With Grace.”

When you ask her Jimmy Fund coworkers or friends about Gabby Whitman, or as Grace called her, “Gib,” you hear things like “sunshine,” “rockstar,” and “inspiration.” Gabby and Grace met freshman year of college when they joined the same sorority, and along with their four other best friends, have been inseparable ever since. The friendship led to a B.A.A. Half Marathon® Dana-Farber team, a 2021 PMC Winter Cycle: Spring Edition rider, a Jimmy Fund employee, and more over the years, all inspired by Grace. For Gabby, these physical challenges are something worth pursuing, for anyone who knows Gabby well knows that caring for others is just something that she does.

In January 2019, Grace was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a high-grade brain tumor, three long months after she was originally diagnosed with “confusion and an ocular migraine” during a trip to the emergency room. Always athletic and healthy, Grace, and everyone surrounding her, was shocked at the diagnosis at such a young age. “I remember feeling so scared for her and her family, but I knew that she was stronger than I ever could be,” Gabby remembers. As a fiercely loyal and protective friend, Grace’s immediate instinct was to check in on those who loved her during the initial days and weeks, instead of focusing on herself; a protective nature that she continued to embody throughout her treatment.

Grace’s family (from left: dad Ray, Grace, sister Hannah, brother Sam, and mom Anne)

The following six months included several surgeries, many scans, intensive chemotherapy, and radiation. “At every turn, Dr. Wen, the nurses, and all staff at Dana Farber made us feel heard, calmed, and confident that each move we made was the right one for us at that time, and we cannot express how grateful we will always be for that,” says Grace’s sister, Hannah. All the while during treatment, Grace remained focused on Gabby and their group of best friends from the University of Connecticut, as well as her family and the love of her life, Tyler.

After Grace’s diagnosis, Gabby decided it was time for a change—and a big one. She left her original career behind and pursued event fundraising at the place that was helping Grace fight for her life: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“I always loved fundraising,” Gabby says. “It’s something Grace and I shared through our participation in UConn’s dance marathon, HuskyTHON. Life is so short, and I decided I wanted to work at the place that was trying to save my best friend’s life.” In December 2019, Gabby joined the Jimmy Fund Golf team, supporting charity golf events run by people she discovered were just like her: deeply affected by cancer and looking to help.

Grace, Gabby, and their college friends at a fundraiser for their 2019 B.A.A. Half team

That was just the start. Since Grace’s diagnosis, Gabby and her close friends, Caroline and Leah, ran the B.A.A. Half for Dana-Farber in September 2019. In addition, Gabby decided to take part in the 2021 PMC Winter Cycle: Spring Edition at Fenway Park and has surpassed her goal of raising $20,000 in Grace’s name.

Grace also made life changes after her diagnosis. She enrolled in New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord to pursue a career as a radiation therapist. While still in treatment, she was inducted into the National Honor Society for the Radiologic and Imaging Sciences in the Fall of 2020.

After almost two years, Grace passed away as a “fighter,” just like her tattoo stated, in December 2020 with her family by her side. To celebrate Grace’s life, Gabby decided her fundraising efforts just weren’t enough, so she added in another challenge.

“On May 15, I’m riding 72.1 miles for Grace,” Gabby says. “The 72.1 miles represent the distance from Grace’s family home in New Hampshire to Dana-Farber, a trip they made often during Grace’s treatment journey. I chose this date because it falls during May, Brain Cancer Awareness Month.”

Grace’s life, before her diagnosis and afterwards, made everyone who loved her fighters, too—including Gabby. You can join Gabby as a virtual rider for the PMC Winter Cycle: Spring Edition this June or support her fundraising by visiting her rider profile. You can also visit the Jimmy Fund website for more ways to get involved.