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Cancer: Jimmy Valvano versus the Stealth Bomber

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This week has been a celebration of Jimmy Valvano's life. ESPN has been promoting the Jimmy V Foundation and the fact that it's vitally important to contribute to the foundation as 100% of the proceeds goes directly to cancer research and related programs.

The V Foundation for Cancer Research website reads that the foundation,

Was started in 1993 to honor Jim Valvano. From the very humble beginnings of Jim's personal friends and family, The Foundation grew. Today, that circle of friends has expanded and the support structure of The Foundation includes people from all walks of life -- those who knew Jim personally, those who knew of Jim, and many who have joined the cause simply because they believe in the possibility of Jim's final wish to fund research to find cures for cancer.

In the past 16 years it has raised $90 million. That got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous thing for me to do.

Every American has, has had, or knows someone who has, or has had, or died from cancer. My father, for example. In a way, it's universal. It's pandemic. Whether one is a Republican or a Democrat, an Independent or a Communist, a Libertarian or a Teabagger, cancer is an equal opportunity employer. In a way, cancer is more of an enemy to the American people than is Iran or North Korea or Al-Qaeda. In a manner of speaking, cancer is truly the axis of evil.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the US Government budgeted $4.81 billion for NCI for fiscal '09. NCI's budget for FY 2008 was $4.83 billion, so was a substantial decrease in money allocated for cancer research from last year. Hold that thought.

Let's assume the V Foundation will raise $5 million for 2009 and we'll throw that money into the NCI cancer pool even though it may not go to NCI. With Jimmy V's contribution we have a total of $4.86 billion devoted to cancer research. That seems like a princely sum of money devoted to something as vital to every American as cancer research until one considers something like the Stealth Bomber. In 2001 the cost of a Stealth Bomber was approximately $530 million. That's for one bomber. One. Adjusted for inflation, that same bomber would cost about $700 million today.

In other words, the total amount devoted to cancer research for 2009 would buy about 6 Stealth Bombers. In the case of the V Foundation alone, its $5 million would contribute to approximately .000714% of the overall cost of a Stealth Bomber. Maybe that would buy the paint. That's all.

That clearly brings to mind notions of what constitutes "security." Exactly what is the greater threat to the American citizenry: foreign invasion by another country or foreign invasion of a disease? What advantage is it to American citizens to have a half dozen more Stealth Bombers? Does having those Stealth Bombers increase the security of the nation and its inhabitants? Or might that money be better spent on increasing the NCI budget towards finding a cure for cancers? The answer seems self-evident.

According to a Department of Defense news release, President Obama "proposed a defense budget of $663.8 billion for fiscal 2010. The budget request for the Department of Defense (DoD) includes $533.8 billion in discretionary budget authority to fund base defense programs and $130 billion to support overseas contingency operations, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. The proposed DoD base budget represents an increase of $20.5 billion over the $513.3 billion enacted for fiscal 2009. This is an increase of 4 percent, or 2.1 percent real growth after adjusting for inflation." The NCI budget is approximately .0073% of the DoD budget." So, while there's been an increase of over $20 billion for the military there has been a concomitant decrease in the money allocated for cancer research. Of course that begs the question: Will money spent by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan help NCI find a cure for cancers? Obviously not.

So, what's more important to our national security? How can one justify budgeting all that additional money for the military and yet cut spending for cancer research? The military constantly needs additional funding and always has and one only need recall Eisenhower's words that "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together" to realize that national interests have become skewed when there is such a disproportionate amount of money being spent to "safeguard" our lives from potential "foreign intrusion."

In his last speech, Valvano said, "But try if you can to support, whether it's AIDS or the cancer foundation, so that someone else might survive, might prosper and might actually be cured of this dreaded disease...I know, I gotta go, I gotta go, and I got one last thing and I said it before, and I want to 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." I imagine that if Jimmy V were alive today and recognized the disparity between what is given to fight potential foreign aggression versus what is given to fight the cancer battle at home he might have said to the military, "Levati dai coglioni!"

But it loses something in translation.