When asked which three words best describe her, Amy Nickles replies, “An inveterate volunteer.”

“I can never say no!” she jokes as she describes her many volunteer positions throughout Dane county over the years, including serving as chair of Attic Angel Association and the American Girl Benefit Sale for Madison Children’s Museum. One position Amy holds near and dear to her is being one of the founding members of Gilda’s Club Madison.

A Life-Changing Phone Call

In 1999, Amy was preparing a lesson plan for her students when she was called into the school office and told she had uterine cancer over the phone. “I initially thought, ‘well, I have uterine cancer, but it’s slow growing and they’ll be able to deal with it.’” But a couple of days after surgery, her doctor informed her that they had also discovered ovarian cancer.

“After going through many treatments, one of the first things I thought was, ‘where’s Gilda’s Club?’”

Amy knew about Gilda Radner and was familiar with Gilda’s work in the cancer support community. She assumed at the time that Gilda’s Clubs were available everywhere, which was not the case.

A Moment of Serendipity

Not long after going through treatment, Amy was sitting in choir rehearsal at the First Unitarian Society of Madison when she overheard fellow founding member Pat Anderson express interest in starting a Gilda’s Club. The two started meeting weekly in Pat’s basement followed by the First Unitarian Society. “We felt we really had a lot of work to do because we were slowly building, but it wasn’t really taking off.”

Picking up Momentum

Amy recalls things being off to a slow-but-steady start until Barry and Cindy Alvarez stepped in. “Then things really started to snowball. More and more people asked how they could volunteer; we had people offering us land and construction crews offering pro bono work. It was amazing to see the outpouring of the community,” Amy shares. One of her favorite memories is touring what is now Gilda’s Club Madison’s current facility with a fellow volunteer. “We had to wear hard hats because they were still building,” she says with a smile. “Those initial opening days were so exciting!”

Amy Nickles (right) with Sandy Henshue touring the clubhouse while it was being built.

A Passion for Serving Others

Since the inception of Gilda’s Club Madison, Amy has served on the board and as both Activities Coordinator and Volunteer Coordinator. And while she no longer serves in these roles, her philanthropic spirit inspires others through accolades such as the “Amy Nickles Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Volunteer Award.”

She has lived all over the world, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, but she is happy to call Madison her home. You might catch her riding an e-bike with her husband, enjoying the Memorial Union Terrace or visiting the Dane County Farmers Market.

Amy looks back on her time with Gilda’s Club Madison with joy and admiration and stresses the importance of keeping resources like this running. “When I was going through my diagnosis, I was told I had a 20% chance to live and had stage 4 ovarian cancer. To be given that information and not really knowing where to turn is difficult. Gilda’s Club allows you to focus on something other than your disease. You can take a yoga class or go to the Laughter Club. You can be happy, you can be sad, you can be angry; you can have any kind of emotion you want to have and you’ll be accepted.”

Written by Maggie Thorison based on her interview of Amy Nickles.


  1. 1
    Joanna Bull on March 30, 2023

    Amy, Pat, Barry and Cindy: Congratulations and thank-you to all of you. You’ve created one of the most solid and enduring of Gilda’s Clubs, one which daily embodies its values of community and friendship, living with cancer, however touched by it. As founder of the flagship Gilda’s Club in New York who has been so proud to know and visit you in Madison, I send my love.

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