Courtney Wagner, the former Canandaigua Academy athlete whose four-year fight battle against cancer and fighting spirit inspired thousands, including talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, died Monday evening. She was 18.
Her mother, Jamie, posted a message on the “Courtney Kicking Cancer” Facebook page that her daughter died at 5:30 p.m. Courtney was surrounded by her family at home. “She died as gracefully and as generously as she lived,” her mother wrote. “Courtney waited until the very moment that her brothers, sisters, parents and grandmother were with her.”
Wagner was a freshman at William Smith College in Geneva and on its soccer team, which has worn T-shirts this fall that read “Courtney’s Crew.” Earlier this month, she was well enough to talk and visit with family and friends at home even though she was only awake about three hours each day. By Tuesday, though, she’d started to slip away.
“Courtney has not spoken a word today,” her mother, Jamie Wagner, wrote late Tuesday on Courtney’s Facebook page, which has more than 21,000 “Likes.”
“She can hear us and is awake at times. She has nodded her head slightly a couple of times, but otherwise has been still. We continue to listen to music, read her cards and messages and tell her of all of the love around her.”
Her family also urged well-wishers to help others.
“We thank all of you. Please extend the kindness you have shown to us to someone with a quieter, less public story. We all have a story, we all struggle, and we can all use a kind word or deed,” Jamie Wagner wrote. “I bet you know someone who needs a hand. Please offer it. Courtney would be happy if others felt the love we feel.”
A former soccer and basketball player in high school, Wagner stopped going to her college classes in early September because of severe neck pain. An MRI then revealed significant progression of disease, as tumors in her neck and back that had been abated by radiation were spreading. Extensive treatment that had aided her fight, which started with a golf-sized brain tumor in 2011, was failing.
“Her will remains strong, her attitude is positive and her smile comes easily,” her mother, Jamie Wagner, wrote in mid-September post on the “Courtney Kicking Cancer” Facebook page. “We love her so much.”
Her story went public in February initially when she was allowed to make the first basket on Canandaigua basketball’s “Senior Night” against Brighton on Feb. 18. Her coach, Mike Brennan, orchestrated that. Wagner, who loved playing sports, was healthy enough to play in several soccer matches last fall, but her symptoms worsened over the winter and she didn’t play basketball. The Rochester RazorSharks men’s professional basketball team also gave Wagner a special day on March 1, allowing her to make the first basket at one of their games at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial.
That social media push and the hashtag #GetCourtneyToEllen became a powerful tool in helping Wagner experience one of the biggest moments of her life. It happened March 3. Word about DeGeneres being her favorite comedian found its way to the star and Wagner and her mother were flown to Los Angeles. Courtney thought they were simply going to be in the audience and watch a taping of the popular show. But her mother knew about the surprise, which was DeGeneres calling her on stage, interviewing her and presenting her with some gifts.
The United States women’s soccer team, led by another former area high school athlete, Mercy High graduate Abby Wambach, also sent a video message to Wagner that aired on Ellen show. A few years ago, Wagner attended one of Wambach’s soccer camps held at Victor High School and met the international star and soccer’s all-time leading scorer.
Those few weeks were a whirlwind for Wagner, especially the trip to meet DeGeneres.
“It was almost like a dream,” Courtney said a day later at the Greater Rochester International Airport upon on her return.