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What It Meant to Hear Jimmy V's ESPY Speech Again as a Cancer Patient

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March 4 is the 25th anniversary of one of the most famous cancer speeches in history.

Jim Valvano, perhaps better known as Jimmy V, received the first Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the first ESPY awards ceremony on March 4, 1993. Jimmy V was most famous at that time for being the coach of the North Carolina State University men’s basketball team, underdogs who won the national championship in 1983.

When Jimmy V won the Arthur Ashe award and gave his speech, he was just a couple of months away from the end of his life. He had metastasized adenocarcinoma, a glandular cancer.

In his speech at the ESPYs, he offered some advice:

To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.

I saw Jimmy V make that speech 25 years ago on TV. At the time, I thought it was inspiring, but as a young healthy man, it didn’t mean much to me.

Five years ago, on its 20th anniversary, I heard it again, on the radio as I was driving.

That time, it meant something.

Like Jimmy V, I was a cancer patient. I still am – in January, I celebrated 10 years with follicular lymphoma, an incurable blood cancer.

On that day five years ago, Jimmy V’s words hit me hard. And it made me think a lot about what my days were like and whether I was living the kind of “full days” he was urging me to live.

Laugh, think, cry: it’s as good a guide for living as I have ever seen. Doing it really will lead to a heck of a life, as he says.

But I’m not saying it’s easy.

Even if we don’t take his advice literally, his point is worth taking to heart. We should live life deliberately.

Here’s what I mean.

Laughing every day is actually pretty easy for me. My parents loved to laugh, and they passed that on to me. Even when I was first diagnosed with cancer, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was absurd – a healthy 40-year-old man with cancer? It was (and still is) ridiculous to me, and I refuse to let cancer take away my joy.

But to laugh, you have to be in the mood. If you’ve ever watched a funny movie with someone who isn’t in the mood to laugh, you know what I mean. Laughing isn’t easy for lots of people with cancer or other illnesses. It takes effort.

For me, crying was the harder thing to do. I’m a man, and a husband and father, and I’ve been conditioned to think I am supposed to be the rock for my family. That’s not the case so much for me anymore. I give myself permission to cry now. Hearing a sad song will do it most days. So will videos of soldiers surprising their families when they return home.

And thinking? Of course we all think. But sometimes it’s easier to just not think about certain things, especially about our disease. It can be overwhelming. But not thinking sometimes means letting others make choices for us about all aspects of our lives. Thinking guarantees we at least let our voices be heard.

Laughing, thinking, crying – sometimes they come easy. But not always, and not for everyone.

To live the kind of life that Jimmy V says we should live, you have to make the choice to open yourself up. To laugher. To tears. To thought.

You have to live deliberately. That’s how you end up with “something special.”

You might do one or two of those things every day – laughing, thinking, crying– without choosing deliberately.

It takes work to choose to do all three in a day.

But what a great choice…

Originally published: March 17, 2018
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