Health & Wellness

Lauren Hill, inspirational college basketball player, dies from brain cancer

Lauren Hill, the college basketball player who became an inspiration with her bravery in the face of an inoperable brain tumor, died at 19 years old on Friday morning.

"We can’t thank everyone enough for their sentiments and kind words,'' the family said in a statement Friday. "Lauren truly moved a nation and we will be forever grateful to everyone for helping her achieve her dreams. We ask for you to respect our privacy as our family makes our next plans.”

After doctors diagnosed Hill with a rare brain cancer called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) during her senior year at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) High School in 2014, her goal was to play in a game for the college where she had committed, Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. She achieved that feat on Nov. 2, as the crowd roared in a standing ovation when Hill scored four points on a pair of lay-ups for Mount St. Joseph, which went on to win the game against Hiram College.

The NCAA granted a waiver that allowed Mount St. Joseph to start its season two weeks early in order for Hill to have a chance to play in the game against Hiram, which was moved to a bigger arena at Xavier University to accommodate the overwhelming support for Hill.

“She was never afraid of taking risks,” Zane White, head girls’ basketball coach at Lawrenceburg High School, told TODAY.com. “Whenever she lacked anything as far as skill or athletic ability, she made up for it with hard work and dedication. And she wasn’t afraid to go out there even if she thought she might fail.”

White was, however, initially surprised at Hill’s very public role in fund raising.

“She was a quiet kid,” he says. “I saw her get out there and speak and it seemed a little out of character from the girl I knew. But once she started she became a strong and confident kid. She did more in her 19 years than many of us will accomplish in a very long lifetime.”

He’s feeling her loss deeply today.

“I’m going to miss her like crazy,” White says. “She taught me a lot about being dedicated and about not worrying about what other people think – something that’s probably very important for a coach. I will never forget Lauren.”

All 10,250 tickets to the Nov. 2 game sold out in minutes, and the proceeds from the game raised $70,000 for pediatric brain cancer research. Hill went on to play three more games for Mount St. Joseph, despite doctors thinking she might not survive past Christmas. In early December, Hill signed up for hospice care to manage her worsening condition.

“God has a new game plan for Lauren Hill,'' Mount St. Joseph University president Dr. Tony Aretz said in a statement to TODAY.com on Friday. "Her light will continue to shine on us all as her supporters worldwide continue her mission of increasing awareness and finding a cure for DIPG. We are forever grateful to have had Lauren grace our campus with her smile and determined spirit. She has left a powerful legacy. She taught us that every day is a blessing; every moment a gift.

"As Lauren’s family and friends grieve, I am sure I speak for many who will choose to reflect on her incredible life with admiration and find ways to remember her selfless generosity. We thank God for the gift of Lauren and thank her parents and family for the honor of allowing the Mount to be a part of her life. Her love and laughter will remain in our hearts.”

The Cure Starts Now Foundation and a non-profit organization in her name, Lauren's Fight for Cure, helped her achieve her goal of raising $1 million for cancer research, with more than $1.4 million raised by early March. On Feb. 6, Mount St. Joseph honored Hill with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, and she also received a Courage Award from Ohio Governor John Kasich.

"For Lauren it was more than just awareness," Jen Gault, public relations and marketing coordinator for The Cure Starts Now Foundation, told TODAY.com. "For her she wanted to motivate people to actually fund cancer research in pursuit of DIPG and the homerun cure. Even as she neared $1.5 million raised in her honor, she wanted more – she wanted cancer research to become a priority in our everyday lives.

"In two weeks, in Chicago at the Third Bi-Annual DIPG Symposium, Lauren’s efforts will be evident. Nearly 120 researchers and foundations will assemble to discuss revolutionary research in the wake of Lauren’s message and with $2.5 million to be funded. I know Lauren would be proud and I know she will continue to push us towards the cure."

"Through Lauren’s fundraising and advocacy efforts she not only became a spotlight on the lack of funding for cancer research, but she most certainly has become a beacon guiding researchers for years to come,” The Cure Starts Now co-founder Brooke Desserich wrote on Facebook after learning of Hill's death.

Her death drew an emotional reaction online from her fans.

Follow TODAY.com writer Scott Stump on Twitter and Google+.

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