Thank you, Lauren Hill

This was written on March 30, 2015 in the hopes Lauren could read a thank you note and hear the my admiration before she left us far too soon.

The Division III basketball season has come to a close and with it another memorable year of games. Two national champions were crowned including one who many expected to make a run and did it while staying undefeated. Another made an improbable run for a team that was supposed to be “down” but ended up shutting down others.

But what is most impressive … Lauren Hill is still with us.

Lauren Hill hits layup to start game against Hiram on November 2, 2014.

The freshman forward for Mt. St. Joseph wasn’t supposed to see the start of the season (November 15). She wasn’t supposed to make it to December. Then Christmas. Now no one wants to know what date she can’t make it by, but rather find out what event she is trying to get to and see.

Lauren Hill captured the entire country’s attention back in late October when she was thrust into the spotlight and brought pediatric brain cancer along into the light. In particular, DIPG or Diffused Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. No one had ever heard of it. That’s because it usually affects children between five and ten and only accounts for roughly a 100 cases every year in this country. But here was an 18 year old who had been diagnosed with DIPG a year earlier and wasn’t expected to make it to the traditional start of the season – the average life span past diagnosis: nine to twelve months.

So Lauren’s coach and team decided to try and play early. Their opponent didn’t hesitate and agreed to move up the date two weeks. A nearby Division I school offered their arena for the game. And then the NCAA granted the early game.

That was going to be it. Lauren’s swan song. Raise awareness for an incredibly debilitating disease that has no cure, play in a college basketball game to achieve a lifetime dream, and eventually fade into the sunset while the rest of us tipped our hats.

But she is still here.

Lauren Hill not only made the start of the season, she played in a few more games and made a few more baskets. Hill not only made it to December, she streamrolled through Christmas and New Year’s and was with her MSJ team whenever she could. In the meantime, she became an honorary assistant coach and raised over $1.2 million before the close of 2014. There are jerseys bearing her 22 from teams around the country signed by Lauren adorning homes, offices, and studios like mine that not only raised money for childhood cancer research, but also remind us how one person can make a huge impact.

Despite her undying attitude to continue living, inspiring, and fighting cancer, no one expected the regular season to end with Lauren still in our lives. But there I was, sitting in front of a camera from my home studios participating in the NCAA Division III Basketball Selection Shows when host Kyle Binder asked me about Lauren Hill. I couldn’t believe she was alive to see the post-season begin. She was still alive the day Thomas More and UW-Stevens Point hoisted the walnut and bronze. And she is still alive as Division I marches to Indianapolis and Tampa.

At that incredible game on Nov. 2 at the Xavier Center, Lauren Hill was given the Pat Summitt Most Courageous award by Pat Summitt herself. It had never been handed out to anyone outside of the women’s final four. In fact, the board of directors for the United States Basketball Writers Association had unanimously agreed to give her the award then because everyone knew she wouldn’t be around to receive the award herself in Tampa.

We are a week away from basketball being played in Tampa.

So in that spirit, I thought it best to write a thank you note to Lauren Hill before she isn’t around to see it. Who knows when that day will come when her body finally has had enough, but I know if I wait any longer that day will come and go and the note will never have been written.

Dear Lauren,
                Thank you.
                Thank you for being more than another person with cancer whose stories we all know.
                Thank you for being more than an athlete who wants to raise awareness for an important cause.
                Thank you for proving it’s more than a game that can rally people.
                Thank you for taking a torch you never knew you were going to hold and carrying it further than anyone knew you could carry it.
                Thank you for making something of your situation and inspiring others to do more than simply applaud.
                Thank you for inspiring even your teammates to do greater things.
                Thank you for inspiring those who don’t even know you to play a game in your honor, raise funds for a disease they don’t understand, give up a jersey possibly right off their own backs, do layups with their off-hand while dizzy to make you smile, to Play for 22.
                Thank you for letting us see you fight. For seeing you change physically as you battle to stay alive, but not change mentally and emotionally. You inspired by allowing people into such a private ordeal.
                Thank you for starting the basketball season with a game and a moment that cannot be outdone by any team, person, or championship.

Lauren Hill with her teammates.

                Thank you for letting people realize there is more to life than personal matters. I can’t help but think of one of your teammates who was getting ready for her final season and injured her knee so badly her season seemed to end before it began. And then her courage and the training staff’s efforts to get her on the court to play next to you on November 2 because she wanted to be there for you. And all you could do was try and be there for her.
                Thank you for having a voice and not being afraid to use it.
                Thank you for keeping it all in perspective. How little did we understand when you corrected Brad Johanson on the air and said this wasn’t your final game… it was simply your first game.
                Thank you for showing people you don’t have to be a billionaire, a politician, a movie or rock star, a professional athlete, or a member of a NCAA Division I powerhouse to have the ability to focus an entire nation – heck, the entire word – on a disease so brutal no one dared talk about it. Now everyone talks about pediatric brain cancer.
                 And thank you for being you. You have smiled through it all. You have laughed. You have even cried, but not because you are afraid of dying. No, you are more worried about your loved ones and how they will deal with your departure. You have made fighting cancer graceful and you have made living life inspiring.
                Many people have quoted Jimmy Valvano when it comes to fighting cancer, as they should. We were all then reminded of that fight and inspiring words this past summer when Stuart Scott graced the ESPYs stage over 21 years later. My hope is you are still on the minds of people when the ESPYs air in July and the basketballs are tipped next November. My hope is when they think of Jimmy V’s and Stuart Scott’s inspiring battles, they remember yours as well.
                You have lived the words of Jimmy V and Stuart Scott even if you don’t realize it.
                Jimmy V: “Never give up. Don’t ever give up.” You haven’t.
                Stuart Scott: “When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you lived, why you lived, and in the manner in which you lived.” Boy have you lived!
                Scott also said, “and when you get too tired to fight, then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you.” Lauren, when you have had enough, lie down. Rest. Let the rest of us fight for you. You have already inspired people to stand up and fight for you. And for that, I thank you.