Jamie Valvano remembers her father being gently being carried down the steps and back to his seat that March night in 1993. Dying of cancer, Jim Valvano had given a speech at ESPN’s first ESPY ceremony that left everyone in awe, in tears.
“We didn’t think he’d be able to make it to the award show, he was so sick,” she said. “He didn’t prepare at all. Then he got up and gave the speech he was born to give, poured everything out, left it on the stage.”
Jim Valvano talked openly about his cancer. The former N.C. State coach talked of making every moment count in life, of never giving up. He stressed the need for more cancer research, for one day finding a way to beat the dreaded disease that would kill him a month later.
“When he was helped back down, he sat down next to me, leaned over and whispered, ‘Did I do OK?’ Jamie Valvano said. “My mouth dropped open. For him to ask me that, it showed how personal this was to him, how close to his heart, that it could be the last message he was able to leave. He had said, ‘We’re starting the V Foundation, it may not save my life, it may save my children’s lives, it may save someone you love.’ It was so prophetic, the words that he spoke.”
Jim Valvano died on April 28, 1993, a month after the ESPYs, at 47. What no one knew at the time was that Jamie Valvano, who was 21 when her father died, had inherited a genetic mutation from him that can cause cancer.
In 2005, at age 33, Jamie Valvano was diagnosed with breast cancer. Jim Valvano had metastatic adenocarcinoma, which was discovered in his spine and later spread to his hips, legs and back.
"The last gift my dad gave me was showing me how to battle the disease and how to live as a survivor,” she said. “That was an incredible gift. He did not know that was going to happen to his own child when he spoke those words. It was such an unselfish act, to want to start the V Foundation, because he knew it probably wouldn’t save his life.”
In the early days of the foundation, the family tried its best to manage things. But the outpouring of support — from ESPN, from those touched by Valvano’s speech who wanted to donate — was immediate and immense.
“The checks started coming in and we panicked,” Jamie said, laughing. “We thought, ‘Oh, my gosh we don’t have any employees, what do we need to do.’”
Twenty-five years later, the V Foundation has awarded more than $200 million in cancer research grants since its inception. An endowment covers administrative expenses, allowing all donations to be used to fund grants.
“To see how the V Foundation is thought of in the medical community is amazing for me, because I’m not sure that’s something even my dad could have imagined,” Jamie said. “For me, as a cancer patient and cancer survivor, it’s rewarding to know the foundation is doing it the right way, getting money in the hands of doctors who are doing research that can really find a cure.
“That’s what was most important for my dad. He didn’t want a statue or a building with his name on it. He wanted research funded.”
Susan Braun, the foundation’s chief executive officer, said more than $6 million was awarded in the past year for BRCA-related research, studying cancers such as Jamie’s caused by BRCA gene mutations.
BRCA is commonly known as the breast cancer gene, although the BRCA genes are tumor suppressor genes. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, when a BRCA gene is mutated it may no longer be effective at repairing broken DNA and helping to prevent breast cancer.
“That is one important piece of the puzzle of many cancers,” Braun said. “This is a specific continuation of Jim’s line, if you will, because he has to have been a BRCA carrier since Jamie and her mother are not.”
In 2008, the foundation announced it was awarding $1 million and teaming up with N.C. State University to establish the Jimmy V-N.C. State Cancer Therapeutics Training Program. Braun said that program continues.
More recently, the foundation has joined in the collaboration between N.C. State’s Veterinary School and the Duke Cancer Institute in its Canine Comparative Oncology project The V Foundation has provided $500,000 to support research that compares human and canine cancers.
“This has become a carefully planned and well-concerted effort and the V Foundation is a partner in that,” Braun said.
Jamie Valvano works in the Wake County Public School System and has two sons — Jake, 18, and Grant, 15. Her sisters, Nicole and LeeAnn, each have two children, she said.
Jim Valvano would have been 72, had he lived, and the grandfather of six. “I think he would have mellowed out, a bit, maybe slowed down,” Jamie said, laughing again.
What about a Jimmy V Twitter account? "Oh, he'd have been all over it," she said.
Now in her mid-40s, Jamie said she has a better grasp of how young her dad was when he died in 1993. As a cancer survivor, she appreciates each day that she has.
“When we watch the (ESPY) speech and we see the legacy that he’s left, we know that he had all of us in mind in the last months of his life, because he really wanted to leave something for all of us to give us hope," she said. "That’s pretty special.”