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The V Foundation Continues The Cancer Fight 25 Years Later

The Foundation’s CEO talks cancer research, Jimmy V, and a new partnership with the NFL.

Nearly 25 years ago, legendary college basketball coach and broadcaster Jim “Jimmy V” Valvano delivered his stirring and emotional speech at the first-ever ESPY Awards in 1993. Despite being weakened from cancer, which took his life less than two months later, Valvano arrived to receive the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award, and his energetic, passionate speech inspired the sports and medical communities to come together to fight cancer.

“I’m going to work as hard as I can for cancer research and hopefully, maybe, we’ll have some cures and some breakthroughs,” he told the audience. “I said it before, and I’m gonna say it again. Cancer can take away all 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.”

As Valvano’s V Foundation for Cancer Research celebrates its 25th anniversary its leadership is looking to the future. More than $200 million in research has been awarded in research grants, and more than $1 billion in additional funding has been leveraged to create measurable results in the lives of those affected by all types of cancer. One hundred percent of the V Foundation’s donations are put directly towards research programs at leading cancer centers and research facilities nationwide.

Cancer survivor Gregory Humbert with Miami Dolphin's player Cameron Wake. Image via Miami Dolphins.

A partnership with the NFL is helping the foundation deliver on its promise of persistence. The NFL Miami Dolphins Cancer Challenge contributed $100,000 in December, with $100,000 matched by the V Foundation for an Early Career Investigator grant to be awarded at Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. The Dolphins join the Kansas City Chiefs as the second NFL team to help support young, tenure-track researchers early in their career in their local communities. In addition, a new fund in honor of Robin Roberts, a member of the V Foundation’s board of directors, and ABC’s “Good Morning America” co-anchor, was recently formed with more than $150,000 raised to support translational research to improve the quality of life for oncology patients (adult or pediatric) after treatment.

There are more than 15.5 million cancer survivors today — including Roberts. But more work is needed in order for survival rates to continue to increase. Cancer remains among the leading causes of death worldwide, according to the National Cancer Institute.

GOOD spoke to Susan Braun, chief executive officer of the V Foundation, about how Valvano’s legacy lives on in unique sports-medical-community partnerships, and why it matters to support cancer research now more than ever before.

What has Valvano’s legacy been for the foundation and its new partnerships?

I like the idea of starting from Jim’s legacy because he said it in his ESPY speech: The idea of paying it forward. He said the research we’re doing may not save his life, but it’s about our children. How can we take what we have and know to bring attention and focus to this disease — having worked primarily in the world of sports — and gather people around this cause to help fund cancer research? That’s what he was about.

How does fighting for a cancer cure relate to competing as athletes?

We talk about this often internally with the team. How do you take the toughest challenge you can think of, and come together to win? How do we overcome the obstacles and jump back up if we’ve been knocked down? It’s about keeping our eye on the goal. We’ve been talking about how well the analogy of a football season — and football overall — fits with what we do. You start by training the best people, and it takes both a good offense and a great defense to fight against the challenges. You have to keep moving forward, but sometimes progress is just a couple yards at a time. Eventually, you cross the goal line, but, just like with football, one goal isn’t going to do it. Sometimes you lose and get set back, but you keep moving forward with your best team.

Cancer survivor Joe Agnello, former Miami Dolphin and Hall of Famer Dan Marino, and cancer survivor Gregory Humbert. Image via Miami Dolphins.

How did the NFL get involved in the new challenge?

I think it’s fun that we’re having these partnerships with the NFL, and we’re putting our money in, and their money into it, and funding locally. In the world of sports, it’s a win for everyone. For example, with the Dolphins, the funding will go to the Sylvester Center. For the Kansas City Chiefs, funding went to the KU Cancer Center, so fans get to see impact right there in their own communities. This combination of fundraising is pretty new for us — we’re trying it out, and believe it’ll be successful. The young people are our future in the science disciplines — engineering, physics, data. We know we must keep the best young minds engaged and focused on cancer research.

What is the impact the V Foundation has had on the lives of those affected by cancer?

We’ve funded a lot of research in precision medicine and targeted therapies. Clearly the development of new treatments has been very important in cancer research in recent years. For us to do really great cancer research, we need people who understand data science — the huge amounts we know are relevant — there are smaller bits of information and more of them. Targeted therapies has been very important in helping understand which patients will do well with one kind of therapy as opposed to another, and avoid treatments that won’t work well, or that might cause them to lose time, or have bad side effects. Another area we’ve been funding is immunotherapy research. Basically, our bodies are very smart, but we have to make sure we don’t have roadblocks. This is most important for children. We’re seeing great progress, for example, with vaccines for kids.

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