Stories of terminal illness are often filled with sadness, pain, and pity. We picture people losing their lives piece by piece. We picture pale skin and hospitals and tears and funerals and wasted lives. All it makes us think is, “I hope that doesn’t happen to someone I know.”

This is not one of those stories. This is the tale of a girl who chose to try the impossible for the sake of others. It’s the story of a child who fought an unwinnable battle with all the strength and spirit she could muster. She gave literally everything she had to the fight — but would it be enough?

Lola Muñoz was an 11-year-old girl from upstate New York who loved roses, rainbows, cookies, sleepovers, and her family. In August of 2016, her life changed forever.

Moriah Ratner

It was then Lola and her parents were visiting a hospital because Lola’s left eye was no longer responding properly. They assumed she had a lazy eye, but when her doctors recommended a brain scan, all involved were terrified.

Moriah Ratner

As the results of the MRI returned, it became apparent that Lola’s condition was far more serious than a lazy eye: she had diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG — an inoperable brain tumor that occurs only in children.

Moriah Ratner

The disease has a 0% survival rate, with only 10% of patients living two years or more. The average prognosis is 12 months. A little girl had received her death sentence, and neither she nor her family could understand it.

Moriah Ratner

At first, Lola thought she brought it upon herself. She figured her brain was sick of her and decided to kill her, so she began apologizing for anything she’d ever done wrong. She asked her mother, Melissa, “why is God punishing me?”

Moriah Ratner

Even though there was no chance Lola could be cured, her doctors did offer her a spot in a clinical trial. It would not only extend her life, but it would hopefully help researchers one day find a cure. Hearing the latter, she agreed.

Moriah Ratner

Still, she wanted to do more. The experimental chemo treatment could help with the research, but it was greatly underfunded. If she could raise awareness about her disease, she thought, maybe that would change. She devised a plan.

Moriah Ratner

Meanwhile, photography student Moriah Ratner was assigned to reach out to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a charity that makes the wishes of terminally ill children come true. “This is perfect timing,” the organization said. 

Moriah Ratner

Make-A-Wish gave her the following task: meet a young girl with DIPG, and, if they liked each other, photograph her journey for as long as the girl still had to live. 

Moriah Ratner

Lola and Moriah connected instantly. Moriah began visiting the Muñoz family four days a week, spending every weekend at their home, and attending Sunday mass with them, despite being Jewish herself. She was completely and utterly devoted.

Moriah Ratner

Of course, this was way more than Moriah’s assignment asked of her, but she didn’t mind. She had already fallen in love with Lola and wanted to ensure her legacy “lived on with integrity and grace,” unlike most childhood cancer stereotypes.

Moriah Ratner

Soon after their meeting, Lola started the trial at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. “I’d rather help find something for the other kids that will get DIPG than to not help at all,” she explained. 

Moriah Ratner

What made her decision so incredibly selfless was the horror of any type of cancer treatment. Lola suffered from headaches, nausea, fatigue, and weakness — not to mention spending day in and day out at hospitals. It was not a life anyone should have to live.

Moriah Ratner

On top of that, like with any chemo treatment, her hair began to thin; her once luscious curls were now dry and broken. It was hard for a now 12-year-old girl to see herself disappearing, and it became a huge emotional strain.

Moriah Ratner

After four months, Lola couldn’t take the side effects of the treatment anymore, so she came home to live a normal life. She went back to school, continued her hobbies, and had a sleepover with her friends.

Moriah Ratner

In fact, she regained so much of her strength that she participated in a “Defeat DIPG Superhero” 6-kilometer walk, which started off with a sprint. It was the strongest and happiest she had felt in a very long time.

Moriah Ratner

Once summer arrived, the Muñoz family went on their annual camping trip, since Lola was stable enough to travel. It meant the world to Melissa to enjoy at least one last vacation with her daughter.

Moriah Ratner

They picked Niagara Falls as their destination, and the whole family had the time of their lives. Lola was still constantly tired, but she had just enough energy to tag along and see the wonderful sights.

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Lola’s father Agustin, a soldier, was particularly happy he could play with her. He had been away for so much of her life, but he had taken leave to be with his family in both the trying and the good times.

Moriah Ratner

Come September, the family celebrated Lola’s 13th birthday — a milestone they had not expected her to reach. The now-teenager was filled with joy as she opened her presents but was hiding the fact that she was getting sick again.

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“Do you know what the worst part is about having a tumor?” Lola asked. “The pretending — pretending like you’re better than you feel for the people that pity you, so you can show them that nothing is wrong.”

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Indeed, a scan revealed that her tumor was growing again. Now, Lola needed both radiation and chemo, and soon, she lost the ability to see out of her left eye and needed a walker to get around.

Moriah Ratner

That’s when Agustin Muñoz decided they would move to Chicago, so they could be closer to the rest of their family. Everything they owned got boxed up, the home they knew was emptied, and Moriah promised she would visit when she could.

Moriah Ratner

In their new home, a bed was set up in the living room because Lola could no longer walk at all. She got around in her late grandfather’s wheelchair and stayed home with her younger sister, Izel, who didn’t attend school yet. Then, a surprise arrived.

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Melissa, who had not been feeling well either had requested some medical tests. It turned out that she wasn’t sick at all — she was pregnant with her fifth child! But would Lola live to meet her new little sister?

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Nearly nine months later, Lola started to worsen rapidly, and she was even losing her speech and hearing. That’s when the family asked Moriah to come. Lola wasn’t scared of death, she said, but she was scared of a future without her in it. 

Moriah Ratner

Sadly, Moriah didn’t make it in time. Lola had passed away on April 2, 2018, surrounded by her family. She would be buried four days later. “She is at peace now,” her mother said. “She is no longer held prisoner by DIPG.”

Moriah Ratner

Lola had wanted pity from no one. “I don’t want them to remember me as the little girl who died,” she confided. All she wanted was for scientists “to start working on a cure” for DIPG and to be remembered for her passion and love.

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She was buried in the same pink floral dress she had worn that Easter, with her crucifix and her rosary beads in her hands – two things she had always clung to when times got tough and she needed a little faith.

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It had been nineteen months since her diagnosis, which was much longer than she and her family had expected her to live. “But her story is not defined by the moment she took her last breath,” Moriah said. “This is a story about her life and who she was.”

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Only a week after the loss of her oldest daughter, Melissa gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl, for which she was eternally grateful. A “rainbow child,” she called her — a child who is born after a loss in the family. 

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The newborn was named Selma, but her middle names, Bernadette Rose, honored her sister, Lola — Bernadette was Lola’s patron saint, and roses were Lola’s favorite flower. She was a beacon of light in a sea of mourning.

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“It has been a privilege and honor to tell Lola’s story,” Moriah said. “Our relationship has been a gift and taught me that nothing in the world is more valuable than time.” 

Moriah Ratner

No child should have to fight battles like these, and, thanks to her partnering with Moriah, Lola’s battle was not in vain: her legacy will live on, spreading awareness to help fund efforts in finding a cure.

Moriah Ratner