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Two dying women teach the nation an unforgettable lesson

By Wayne Drash, CNN
updated 3:43 PM EST, Thu November 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On a single weekend, two young women with terminal brain cancer inspired a nation
  • One ended her own life; Brittany Maynard chose "death with dignity"
  • The other, Lauren Hill, achieved her dream -- to play college basketball before she dies

(CNN) -- Two women captured our hearts; both were dying of brain cancer. Both taught us to cherish life -- that nothing is greater than the human spirit.

Brittany Maynard, 29, fought for the right to die with dignity. Lauren Hill, 19, fought for a dream -- to play in a college basketball game before she dies.

Their stories are sad and tragic, yet inspirational, brave and beautiful. For a brief moment last weekend, both women took us away from the negative political ads blasting from our TVs and gave us the most important message of all: to enjoy our time on Earth.

Maynard conveyed a stirring message about being allowed to die on her own terms; Hill's cause was infectious as she conveyed a never-give-up spirit.

Maynard's choice in her own words
'Death with dignity' advocate dies at 29
Woman with same cancer as Maynard speaks

On Saturday, November 1, Maynard who suffered from terminal brain cancer took her last breath. She had moved to Oregon to end her life under that state's Death With Dignity Act.

Before taking medication that ended her life, Maynard signed off, saying, "Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love."

"It is people who pause to appreciate life and give thanks who are happiest. If we change our thoughts, we change our world! Love and peace to you all."

A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Maynard had enjoyed traveling the world before her diagnosis. "The world is a beautiful place," she said. "Travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers."

She died surrounded by those who loved her most.

A once taboo topic -- letting a terminally ill patient die on his or her terms -- was thrust into the spotlight.

As news of her death spread, her story went viral by Sunday afternoon. Mourners tweeted and memorialized her across social media.

That same day, Lauren Hill slipped on her No. 22 jersey and suited up to play basketball for Division III Mount St. Joseph. The NCAA -- not known for making speedy decisions -- moved up the team's season opener to allow Hill to play before she dies.

When she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor last year, one of her doctors told her pediatric brain cancer "needed a face," so she set a goal to live long enough to play in her first collegiate basketball game. In September, doctors gave her only a few more months. She is expected to live only until December.

More than 10,000 fans crammed into Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Sunday for the match against Hiram College. They wore T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing Hill's name and the slogan "Never Give Up."

Lauren Hill's dream game
College athlete's dying wish granted
First college game is dying player's last

Hill told ESPN before the game: "I've always wanted to step out on a college court, looking down at my shoes, stepping out on that wooden floor and feeling the vibration of the crowd."

On the first play of the game, Hill got the ball in the post and laid it off the glass for a bucket. The arena erupted. She would score again, ending with four points.

At halftime, legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt -- facing her own valiant bout with Alzheimer's -- presented Hill with the Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award. The award is typically given at the end of the season during the women's Final Four.

"This game has been amazing, and everything that happened today was amazing," Hill said. "This is a really good day."

The opposing coach, Emily Hays of Hiram, said, "The look on her face was priceless. She had that big smile. I'm like, 'That's why we're here.' "

There were enough tears to fill the Ohio River. Her story caught fire on social media, too.

Mortality is something we all must face. In one weekend, two women more than 2,300 miles apart reminded us what it means to be courageous.

Follow CNN's Wayne Drash on Twitter or contact him by email.

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