Picking Splinters: Like Valvano, Fight On

At halftime of the Georgetown-Butler game on Tuesday night, my fiancée leaned over and asked if I was “getting misty.” I was, but it was not from the sense of profound, unadulterated joy watching Greg Monroe assert himself against lesser opponents inside the paint. Nor was it from the pain of watching Hoya turnovers pile up faster than the national debt.

Both are exceptionally valid reasons for a little eye-welling from a Georgetown fan, but in this case, the “I have something in my eye” moment came from the tuxedoed man speaking on the video screen above the court.

For those that don’t know the story of Jim Valvano, I’ll briefly sum it up. In 1983, his team, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, captured the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed, defeating a Houston team that included Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon on a miraculous, last-second basket. Ten years later, dressed in that tuxedo, he stood before a crowd of celebrities and athletes at ESPN’s inaugural ESPY awards ceremony and spoke at length of his ongoing battle with cancer.

At the conclusion of his speech, he told us how he was going to fight the cancer, how he wanted to present the award he had just received to next year’s recipient. Eight weeks later, he passed away. It was just more evidence of how one-sided the so-called “Fight” against cancer can be.

In the wake of Valvano’s speech, ESPN helped establish The V Foundation, dedicated to raising money for cancer research. To date the foundation has raised $90 million and that’s just a small part of a global effort to combat cancer. As far as I know, we’re still not entirely sure how to cure cancer, nor prevent it. Heck, we don’t even know what causes it, as I read countless articles blaming everything from microwaves to broccoli.

Making that moment in Madison Square Garden all the more bleak, a few inches to my right, sat a friend whose father was currently battling Leukemia. For all of the billions of dollars and millions of hours dedicated to cancer research since Jimmy Valvano gave this speech, his father’s future was still up in the air. It’s hard to see much progress from that point of view.

If the best medical minds of our time, with the benefit of titanic sums of cash, can’t pin down the problem of cancer, how exactly are we supposed to “fight” it?

While Valvano pleaded with those watching to pledge their financial support for cancer research, it was another part of his speech that reminded me there’s more to cancer than just the search for a cure. Back on that stage in 1993, he told us to take time to do three things every day: Laugh, think and cry. It occurred to me then that those three things are all part of the battle too.

The battle isn’t with cancer. It’s with death, the sorrow of losing those close to us or being taken from them. That’s where the fear and the fight comes in. Whether cancer is in our lives or not, we want to stay with those we love.

We may never be able to cure cancer and to my knowledge the Grim Reaper still sports an unblemished record when he comes calling for you. What is possible, what is under our control is how we make the most of the time we’re granted. Laughter, thought, tears – those are three very poignant parts of the human condition, aspects that breed memories. Making the most of every day we have, cancer diagnosis or no, that’s all part of the battle.

Valvano concluded his speech with the following words: “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.” After sharing his passion and his thoughts with us some 17 years ago, Valvano was certainly right.

I spent the rest of the game talking, laughing and thoroughly enjoying Georgetown’s victory with my friend, who, for at least a little while, was able to take his mind off of cancer.

“You were getting misty,” my fiancée jabbed later that night. I laughed and put my arms around her.  Take that, cancer.

 Mike Hume may be e-mailed at