By Linda Borgstede
Today the kidney cancer foundation bearing her name is international in its reach supporting patients, families and caregivers with the latest education and support.
In Jacksonville, Fl. In 2007, there was no such source for those receiving a kidney cancer diagnosis. There was no local support group. Research was poorly funded.
Christmas season, 2007, Judy Nicholson was a successful real estate agent, wife, mother and grandmother in Atlantic Beach, Fl. Christmas Eve was special to her. That was when she and her husband entertained their grandchildren. There was no indication of illness.
A native of Hampton, VA, Judy was a biology graduate of the University of Richmond.
She had married her high school sweetheart, Nick Nicholson, and they had lived in exotic locations like Morocco for his career. Now they made their home in the Florida beach town.
Judy was a realtor with Watson Realty Corp. assisting clients with a charm that made many of them lifelong friends. She had achieved a Certified Residential Specialist (CRS), the highest credential awarded to residential sales agents. In 1995, Judy was recognized at the number one sales leader of over 300 sales men and women.
During her last 15 years as a working sales professional, she was always in the top ten Watson agents with the highest annual volume of closed sales transactions.
She considered Janet Palmer, a Watson agent, as her mentor. Palmer recalled getting Judy on her sales team for a big community shortly after the Nicholson’s had moved to the area.
“Judy and real estate were a good match,” Palmer said. “She was organized and developed her own base.”
In February, 2008, Judy suffered a fainting spell, unusual for her, which required further examination. Only a short month later, she received a diagnosis of renal cell carcinoma and had her left kidney removed at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. That was followed by chemotherapy as the kidney cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and the aorta for her kidney.
Nick Nicholson recalled this time as “painful and depressed with brief periods of hope.
We had a million questions.”
Her illness progressed with readmission to Mayo in August. An aggressive tumor had destroyed one of her spinal vertebrae. That cancer had injured critical nerves in the spinal column causing paralysis in her left leg, another harsh effect of invasive cancer.
Throughout all of this, Nick recalled, Judy maintained a positive, courageous outlook, an inspiration to friends and family. Prior to this year, Judy had only ever been a hospital patient to give birth to two children.
Her death in October was “shocking” to her friends and family, a short seven months from the diagnosis. “It was an emotional time,” Nick said.
“Kidney cancer has a different set of treatments, questions than other cancers like breast or prostate cancer. Both of those, at that time, had good support groups.” The Nicholson’s had no support group to turn to for information and support.
After a time of dealing with the reality of what had happened, Nick said he and family members began “thinking of a way to make something good come out of this.”
The result was a foundation that was first called The Judy Nicholson Foundation, but soon the name changed to The Judy Nicholson Kidney Cancer Foundation. It was chartered in 2009.
The Judy Nicholson Kidney Cancer Foundation story
In the short seven months from the diagnosis to the death of Judy Nicholson, the family discovered a lack of early detection protocols, no support group in their region and multiple questions unanswered. The only reality at the time was Judy Nicholson’s “positive, courageous outlook”.
It was this memory that led family and friends to start a foundation in her name. It began simply as the Judy Nicholson Foundation, but soon was renamed more appropriately – The Judy Nicholson Kidney Cancer Foundation. Local, at the beginning, but something so much larger and encompassing today.
Nick Nicholson, Judy’s husband and founding chairman, recalled that they wanted “to make something good out of their experience.”
Close friends of Judy’s, Janet Palmer and Sharon Riemann, joined two doctors, Nick and family members in creating a foundation with the purpose of raising money for Kidney Cancer research. Adine Nicholson, Judy’s daughter in law, was executive director of the new foundation.
Grants and important 501c3 status were sought and achieved early on.
Fundraising began in a variety of ways. In the early years, there were dinner events, art shows, concerts, battle of the bands and a contest in a local school.
At the early fundraising events, the board collected names and email addresses.
The moneys collected were given to Mayo Clinic for research.
“We were going to raise millions of dollars for Kidney Cancer research,” Adine Nicholson said. “Nick was pushing a big boat.”
In a partnership with Mayo Clinic and Episcopal High School in Jacksonville, FL, the foundation provided funds to support a science student researching early Kidney Cancer detection and treatment. The student was monitored by a Mayo doctor and encouraged by Marion Zeimer, Episcopal’s Director of Scientific Research.
A logo was developed with an osprey in flight inspiring an early program called “Wings of Hope. Partnering with a local church, Christ Church-San Pablo, this effort was a series of musical evenings offering hope and connection to all Kidney Cancer patients, survivors and support networks.
At the time, Pastor Bob Morris said of these evenings: “a gathering place away from the hospitals and treatment centers. This is not a religious event but a place of connection. There is always a doctor and a clergy person in attendance to, hopefully, answer some of the ‘millions of questions.’”
Another early event was a dinner and an auction featuring Coach Bobby Ross as the speaker. A Virginia native like Judy, Coach Ross had coached the Detroit Lions and had taken the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl.
Events were well attended but labor intensive. While they didn’t raise large amounts of money, Nick said “they got us name recognition.”
Adine said: “After a few years, the board said ‘Let’s let the pro’s raise money.” In 2013 the mission of the foundation changed. It would move to “support and education.”
She remembered the steps the foundation took to re-mission the foundation.
“We talked to Northeast Fl. Patients, both in groups and in individual homes.
We listened to the patients and caregivers. No one in the nation was doing symposiums.
A symposium through Mayo had been part of these early years, and it was an idea that took root in the new mission.
“We reached out to The Kidney Cancer Coalition and to the international Kidney Cancer group. They responded that they weren’t doing what we were doing. Several of our board members traveled to events being held by those groups. At one such event, in Orlando, FL, we put up our booth.
“We listened to patients and caregivers,” she said. It was and is important that this foundation exist for patients who have Kidney Cancer and for caregivers and support groups.
“We offered ways to get patients together. We got doctors for speakers.
“Word-of-mouth between doctors was good for us. They can only do so much, so they are excited that we exist.”
Today the Judy Nicholson Kidney Cancer Foundation is international in scope. It’s in- person informational symposiums had a set back with the pandemic, but it never paused being a source of help through its website, blogs, and virtual events.
Nick stepped back two years ago to allow, he said, for the new tactics of younger people, but he “still has a passion for the work of the foundation”
For the future, he said: “I would like to see more symposiums around the country. With media coverage, we reach more patients and caregivers. It’s uplifting, what we’re doing now and we’re getting better at it.”
Members of the board of the JNKCF have other full-time jobs but work in this mission with dedication.
A full time Director of Administration was found in 2012 in the person of Linda Anderson. According to Adine, “Linda works her tail off.”
Adine, with a background in finance and 30 years of both volunteer and professional philanthropy, has been a motivated developer of the foundation. She is currently treasurer.
“Judy was like a mom to me,” she said, “and I was honored to be in her life.”
Her goals: “I would like to see it get bigger. We are doing a lot but there’s so much more to be done.”