On a snowy December night in 2016, more than 75 dedicated Wisconsinites braved the wintry conditions and made the trek to The Edgewater hotel in Madison to be part of something truly special.
They came to support Badger men’s basketball coach Greg Gard and his wife Michelle as they launched a new initiative known as Garding Against Cancer. While the event was aimed at having a little fun on a chilly evening, it also carried a serious message: Cancer still affects too many of us, but there’s something we can do about it.
The pitch was simple: invest in cancer research and patient care initiatives right here in Wisconsin. By partnering with the UW Carbone Cancer Center, as well as numerous organizations across the state, money raised here would stay here, helping patients who need assistance now while also funding homegrown research to develop tomorrow’s cancer cures.
Now, five years and more than five million dollars raised later, Garding Against Cancer is going strong. Through events and fundraisers – not to mention the overall generosity of everyday Wisconsinites and Badgers at heart – Garding has been able make significant progress in the fight against cancer.
Money raised has funded groundbreaking immunotherapy research, helped purchase state-of-the-art electron microscopes and other equipment, and allowed UW Carbone’s Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board to expand. That’s in addition to also benefiting dozens of communities and partner organizations across the state, who provide assistance and care to cancer patients and their families.
But as Greg and Michelle Gard reflect on Garding’s first five years, it’s not the big events or even the dollar totals they remember most. It’s the moments when they’ve been able hold the hands of patients in hospice care, sit with families during times of need, or share their own message of inspiration and hope with those whose lives have been affected by cancer.
“You can have a positive impact and make somebody feel a little bit better in the day that they’re in,” Greg said. “That’s been one of the things probably as or more rewarding than any dollars raised.”
Having been on the other side of that equation, the Gards know all too well the pain that comes with a loved one receiving a cancer diagnosis.
In May 2015, Greg’s father Glen was diagnosed with an aggressive and difficult-to-treat form of brain cancer. He underwent treatment at UW Carbone, but the cancer moved quickly. About six months after his diagnosis, Glen Gard passed away at the age of 72.
Less than two months later, Greg was named interim head coach of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team. While still grieving the loss of his father, he was forced to start thinking about how to position his team for another Final Four run. But he also began thinking about how he could use his new job for good.
“Knowing we were going to have a platform and a voice, we were looking for a way we could impact and help others,” Greg said.
The Gards had previously supported cancer research, but the loss of Glen to glioblastoma made their connection to the cause stronger – and much more personal – than they could have ever imagined.
So within months, they began taking steps to build an initiative that would not only allow them to raise money for the cause, but do it in a way that would have made Glen proud.
After the official wintry launch of Garding, the Gards hosted their first signature event at the Kohl Center in May 2017. By all accounts, it was a major success. The Madison-based event drew more than 600 attendees and raised more than $1 million.
It was a huge win for the Gards, but only part of their overall strategy to engage with the entire state.
“Being from rural communities, we really wanted to reach out to the wider Wisconsin community,” Michelle said. “It was important for us to get out there and be able to fund different things, in addition to research, around the state. It’s a reflection of Glen, as well.”
So the Gards began crisscrossing Wisconsin, hosting events in various towns and cities, and raising funds for local cancer initiatives. Over the years, Garding events have included pheasant hunts, golf outings, 5K races and much more. Additionally, Garding has spun the annual “UW vs. UW” exhibition game into a friendly competition to raise funds in communities such as Oshkosh, Menomonie, La Crosse, Wausau, Whitewater and Janesville.
And over time, various organizations, companies and even individuals began hosting their own fundraisers for Garding – all in their own unique Wisconsin way. Churches have hosted fish fry fundraisers. High school basketball teams have hosted competitions. Even elementary schools have gotten in on the action.
“People are continually trying to find ways, even small ways, to help in their communities,” Greg said.
Then in 2020, Garding pivoted due to COVID-19 pandemic. In September, they hosted a virtual signature event which featured live music, an update on cancer research and more than a few surprise guests. The event also netted just more than $500,000 in the course of a few hours.
And while some in-person events returned in 2021, the Gards said they remain flexible with things going forward. Because whether it’s meeting face-to-face with families across Wisconsin – or over Zoom – both Greg and Michelle remain committed to easing the burden of cancer, no matter what it takes.
And while the Gards love their work, and all that they’ve been able to accomplish, there’s something they’d love even more: Finding a cure for cancer.
“That would be the best result,” Greg said, "that there isn’t a need for this anymore.”