Cancer maybe an age-related disease, but it can also attack the young. Here is the story of a young girl whom shares a favorite thing in life, as I do. Basketball.
When someone dies, we eulogize and celebrate her life. When she’s dying, we muse about her death. We talk about what could have been and should have been and weep for what never will be.
But Lauren Hill is still here. So she’d rather talk about life, about what is. And on Saturday morning, as she drove with her family from their home in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, to Cincinnati for Sunday’s game, she wants to talk about basketball.
“Is it 2:00 on Sunday yet? Is that the buzzer to start the game? Is the whistle being blown to toss the opening tip-off?” Lauren said. “I’m so glad it’s here, but I try not to think that far ahead. Right now, I’m thinking about going to practice and being with my team. We have a walk-through today.”
Hill is that woman you’ve heard about somewhere, maybe on ESPN, maybe on Facebook, maybe in the newspaper, perhaps on early morning TV. She’s the college freshman basketball player who was diagnosed with brain cancer her senior year of high school, after deciding to attend Division III Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati.
She’s the girl whose parents, after her tumor spread and she was given only a few months to live, worked with her college coach, the opposing team’s coach and the NCAA to move her team’s opening game up by two weeks in the hopes that she will still be strong enough to suit up for one collegiate game.
The 19-year-old has been giving interviews and fighting publicly in the hopes of bringing attention to the rare form of brain cancer from which she will die. And she’s the girl whose story garnered so much attention that the site of Mount St. Joe’s Sunday game against Hiram College was moved to Xavier University’s Cintas Center, and the 10,000-seat arena sold out within a day.
But Hill is more than that freshman you heard about somewhere. She’s also a daughter to Lisa and Brent, and a big sister to Erin, 14, and Nathan, 17. She’s a soccer fan, has a creative eye and loves music, all types of music, just not screamo.
She’s a fan of the Harlem Globetrotters, was painfully shy before her diagnosis and is a wiz with Photoshop. She likes to shoot videos and edit them for her family, and you know that image that’s been going around online, the one of Lauren standing with her hands on her hips in her high school uniform, the one that was shot from behind and adorns #1More4Lauren images on Twitter? She designed that herself. “I’m really proud of that,” Hill said.
Since the date of the game was officially moved, Hill has been counting down the days, anticipating the opening tip-off, living for Nov. 2, some might say. But she knows as acutely as anyone that tomorrow is not promised, and when game day comes, she might be too sick or too weak or in too much pain to play.
The tumor causes migraines and has weakened the right side of her body. The medicine makes her nauseous; it makes her joints ache and her face and body swell and does little to dampen the pain. She has good days and awful days and she tries to make the most of both.
Around her family, she is stoic and pragmatic but sometimes breaks down beneath the weight of it all. She doesn’t know how tomorrow will go, so she rarely allows her mind to wander too many hours ahead. “I still can’t believe how big this is,” Hill said. “I feel like I’m in a dreamlike state most of the time. But I just try to think about right now.”
And right now is 24 hours before tip-off of the biggest game of her life.
Hill’s relationship with basketball was not a love-at-first-layup affair. It was more like an arranged marriage that, over time and with commitment and nurturing, eventually filled with passion and turned into love.
Hill was in the sixth grade when her dad suggested she try out for the middle school team. He told her to give the sport one year. “He was my soccer coach and I loved soccer, but everyone always said, ‘You’re so tall and skinny and have long arms — you should play basketball,'” Hill said. “But I did not like it. I played for a year and still didn’t like it. But I felt this need to keep playing and keep trying to get better. That’s how I am with everything. I like a challenge, and that’s why I stuck with it.”
In middle school, she says she never found her stride, never felt confident with her shot. As a freshman at Lawrenceburg High School, she still struggled. She never took perimeter shots and froze when she posted up, fearful a teammate would pass her the ball. “I didn’t have confidence that I was any good until my sophomore year,” she said.
That’s when coach Bill Snyder, who retired in 2013, pulled her aside. “He could see it,” she said. “I’d asked him what I could do to improve, what I needed to work on and he said, ‘Lauren, you need to work on your confidence. That’s a skill, too.'”
The next season was her best. Her father had always insisted she practice dribbling and shooting with both hands. By her junior year, buoyed by her newfound confidence, she had become a skilled shooter, surprising opponents with her left-handed hook shot. “That’s my skill,” she said. “I can shoot either way.”
She grew to 5-foot-10, played center and excelled at getting the ball into her teammates’ hands, always thrilled to hear the announcer call her name as the player who’d made an assist. She was finally in love with the game.
The summer after her junior year, her new coach, Zane White, called with news Hill never thought she would hear. “I was scouted by a college coach,” she said. “I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t even know my stats. When I told my dad, he was so happy, maybe even more than me. He said, ‘I told you that you would be a good ballplayer.'”
Deep down, Hill knew she wanted to play basketball, but she waited to sign with the Lions. College was a big decision and she wanted to make sure she was making the right one. A couple of days before her 18th birthday, she suffered an appendicitis attack and had to have an emergency appendectomy. “I wasn’t feeling well on my birthday and I was really upset,” she said. “I wanted to eat pizza and cake and enjoy my birthday. I was so sad. I decided I needed to do something to make it a good day.”
So she made her decision. She called Mount St. Joe’s coach Dan Benjamin and said she was coming to the Mount to play. “I was so excited to make that call,” she said.
A year earlier, Lauren never thought she’d play a game of college basketball. Once she signed with the Lions, she never thought there would be a chance that day would never come.
She signed on Oct. 1, 2013. That November, she was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) an incurable form of brain cancer typically seen in children between the ages of 5 and 7. It affects approximately 100 people in the U.S. per year; only 10 percent of children diagnosed with DIPG live for more than two years. It is extremely rare in people Hill’s age, and because she is one of the few who can speak up and speak out, she has chosen to be a megaphone for the need for more research. Little progress has been made in the treatment of DIPG, which has a 0 percent survival rate.
Hill hopes the attention that she is bringing to this cancer will begin to change that fact, even if it means waging an ugly battle in the public eye and granting interviews and photo shoots until she is too weak to speak.
She fills the moments in between doing what she loves with the people she loves the most. She’s living at home in Lawrenceburg, but attends classes and practices on the days when she feels strong and wants life to feel normal. “My team is also my family,” she says.
Game nights in the Hill household have become no less competitive because Lauren is sick. On Thursday night, they carved pumpkins as a family and on Friday, Hill went trick-or-treating with her sister Erin, who was dressed as a zombie cowgirl. Trick-or-treating is something they’ve always done together, walking the streets of their neighborhood together, despite a five-year age difference.
Hill has never been all that into dressing up, though. She’d toss together a witch costume or a princess, but this year she took extra care. This year, her costume was special.
“Last year in school, my sister had to write a paper on someone she looked up to and she wrote it about me,” Hill said. “She titled the paper ‘The Warrior in Gray.'”
Gray is the color of brain cancer awareness, a nod to the gray matter the disease destroys. “When I was trying to think of a costume idea, I thought about her paper,” Lauren says.
So she dressed her toy poodle, Sophie, as a red dragon and dressed herself as a majestic gray knight. “It was meaningful,” Hill said. A symbol of her continued fight.
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