Jonathan Nagy grew up watching Jim Valvano from afar. He was eight years old when Coach Valvano led NC State to a National Championship and remembers clipping the picture of Coach Valvano cutting down the net out of the newspaper.
When Jonathan met his now-wife Clarissa in 2001, she remembers seeing that clipping in his office. They admired Jim and the work that was being done in his legacy.
“When I first met Jonathan, he had the picture of Coach V cutting off the net when they won the national championship,” Clarissa said. “That was my first exposure to Coach V and we donated when we first got together and got the DVD. We would watch it and we would cry, and Jonathan started coaching that next year.”
But they never related to Jim Valvano, or his mission, more than they do now.
In November of 2018, Clarissa was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer. Since then, the road has been filled with ups and downs, but she and her family continually embody Jim’s mantra of, “Don’t Give Up…Don’t Ever Give Up!”®
After diagnosis came six months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery in May of 2019. Her margins weren’t clear, leading her to move in with her sister a couple hours away to seek more treatment. She re-started chemotherapy towards the end of 2019 and had surgery again in December. This time, her margins were clear, and she moved back home in January 2020. It was a time of celebration but also readjusting to a new environment.
Then, COVID hit. The pandemic led to new challenges. Normally during treatment a patient would receive regular scans after clear margins, but because of the pandemic, her local oncology department only did in-patient visits for those active in chemotherapy. So, in December of 2021 when Clarissa began having vocal issues, she and her family were not sure what was going on.
For six months Clarissa had been seeking to get into a doctor’s office. She was finally able to get into UCLA in July 2022 and found out her breast cancer had metastasized to her chest, lungs and neck. She began her third bout of chemotherapy and finished treatment on January 30, 2023.
It’s been a long road but recently she was told all tumors were 100% responsive to treatment – great news to cap the journey! She will likely continue maintenance treatment for the next five years and is being tested regularly.
If it sounds like a lot, it’s because it was. Her journey has been a roller coaster of change and hard times, but when telling her story, she can’t help but remain upbeat and speak of her grounded faith and community. A phrase that she constantly leaned on in treatment was ‘Choose Joy.’ She, and her friends and family around her, lived that phrase daily.
“One of the things that really helped ground us during this time was our faith,” Clarissa said. “There were so many people rooting for us, and through that our motto was ‘Choose Joy.’ People would find things that said ‘joy’ on it, and it would show up on our doorstep like a care package. That was a really big thing for us after the initial diagnosis.”
In addition to their community and faith, the Nagys felt blessed to have a strong medical team around them. Their medical staff was passionate and caring, continually looking at new treatment options or clinical studies.
In October of 2022, amid chemotherapy for the third time, Clarissa decided to share her story publicly. This was hard; it was personal and vulnerable. However, she felt like her story could empower others to help.
“I pull it [Jim’s 1993 ESPYS speech] up every week and listen to it,” Clarissa said. “He encourages us we need to laugh every day, we need to think every day and we need to cry every day. That passion and that hope … for us, that [the V Foundation] was the place we wanted to tell our story because how are people going to know there is hope and how are people going to see there is improvement if we don’t share our story?”
Throughout their journey, they continually witnessed the importance of cancer research first-hand. Because of research, there are current clinical trials aimed at improving better long-term treatment options for HER2+ after chemotherapy. Also, Clarissa will have radiation done through a gamma knife, a recent technology allowing quicker treatment and less radiation exposure overall.
“Cancer research is very, very important to us and definitely affects our stories, personally,” Clarissa said. “The quality of life and improvements, there are so many different ways cancer research is helping cancer patients to live and thrive – not just to survive but thrive … all of these things [treatment options] are possible because of cancer research. We are so grateful for all that the V Foundation is doing in support of cancer research.”
At the same time, the Nagys see the need for even more cancer research.
“One of the things we heard early in our journey was, and it was frustrating, but now we look at it as exciting, ‘the research isn’t there yet’ or ‘the trials are happening,’” Jonathan said. “The work is being done but they’re not quite there yet for it to be implemented in our case. At first it was frustrating but now it is exciting that there will be new things. Other people that are, unfortunately, going to walk through this might have more tools and more people can have success stories. To see how far we have come in the last 20 years is amazing.”
Clarissa and Jonathan wholeheartedly believe in the mission of the V Foundation and share its goal – Victory Over Cancer®.
“It’s an interesting phrase, because it is personal,” Jonathan said. “We are in our own fight for Victory Over Cancer® but, it also points to a bigger we, as a community, are in a fight for Victory Over Cancer®. On so many different levels, that is encouraging. We get to focus on our part, but there is a bigger picture and a bigger victory that is coming.”
In 2023, the V Foundation is celebrating 30 years of granting funds toward game-changing cancer research. In its existence, the V Foundation has funded nearly 1,200 cancer research grants totaling over $310 million. Today’s cancer research is tomorrow’s victory. Donate today at v.org.