Diem Brown: a Fighter to the End

Diem Brown never believed it was over. Not when doctors told her that cancer had spread everywhere in her body. Not when they advised that she had, at most, 30 days to live. Not even when they suspended all treatment and told her there were no further options. So unwavering was her certainty about the future that she was excitedly planning to celebrate her favorite holiday: Christmas. “Every year she made sure we had the most beautiful trees,” says her longtime friend and former roommate Alicia Quarles. “She couldn’t wait to light the tree this year.”

Sadly, she won’t have the chance. On Nov. 14 Brown died at age 34 in a New York City hospital, surrounded by family and friends. Two days later her loved ones gathered at her downtown Manhattan apartment to string lights, put up the tree and listen to Christmas music while sharing memories of the late star, who rose to fame on MTV’s reality competition The Challenge. “We tried to laugh and tell stories,” says her close friend Julie Rotondi. “When you’re crying remembering happy times, it’s a lot easier than crying remembering the hard times at the end.”

Brown experienced both in her too-short life, often in the span of a single moment. Irreverent and intensely defiant even in her final days, she found ways to inject humor into the darkest times. The night before she died, “our brother [Jarrod, 27] was telling a story about how in high school, they’d chased each other around the house trying to take pictures of the other looking ‘morning bad’ for blackmail,” recalls her sister Megan, 30. “At this point Diem had been sleeping for hours, so we were just telling stories around her. Then, without opening an eye, she said, ‘I never look bad!’ ”

Nor did she ever consider the idea that she might not beat the odds. “Dying” was not a word she ever spoke. She had no interest in creating a bucket list and refused to discuss terminal care. When she was finally moved to hospice one night before her death, her friends told her she had been “upgraded” to a nicer room because they knew how much she’d have loathed knowing otherwise. “Every day she spent in the hospital, she wanted to know when she was going to go home and what she needed to do to make that happen,” says Megan. Adds Quarles: “Death wasn’t an option. It was 95 percent determination and 5 percent denial. In her mind she wasn’t going to go.”

It was that single-mindedness that helped make her a breakout star during seven seasons of The Challenge, along with a bold candor that saw her once rip off her wig post-chemotherapy to compete in a swimming race. (She won.) “Diem was a fierce competitor who never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her,” says executive producer Jonathan Murray, adding that fans and castmates alike were charmed by “her spirit, her humanity and her tenacity. Diem soldiered on, no matter what life threw at her.”

Life threw a lot. The oldest of four kids raised in Roswell, Ga., by Richard and Jillian (who died in 1999), “she always dreamed big,” says Megan. At 25, Brown’s world was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just before her debut season on The Challenge. Then, in 2012, she revealed the cancer had returned. Undergoing chemotherapy, she chronicled everything from her hair loss to her fertility issues on a candid blog for People.com. Along the way she found her voice as a cancer activist, sharing her journey and founding the patient-support registry MedGift. “Trying to find some sort of upside really helps,” she wrote in October 2012. Comparing her hair loss to “shedding like a Shih Tzu in the Sahara Desert,” she added, “If you are confined to your bed, an … upside can be: You can finally finish the Fifty Shades of Grey series while drifting off to images of Christian Grey’s ties dancing around your head.” Through it all, she never doubted she would put the disease behind her. “Her first two bouts of cancer were annoyances, in her mind,” says Megan.

The latest fight was different. She was poised to embark on another season of The Challenge in Panama in August, but soon after filming began she collapsed with crippling stomach pains and had to be airlifted to a New York City hospital. The devastating diagnosis: Cancer had been found in her stomach and colon. Doctors performed surgery to remove a tumor blocking her colon; three days later she underwent surgery again after complications from the first operation. She left the hospital with a colostomy bag, which she addressed in typically blunt style (“at first I would hide it with a sheet because it grossed me out”); an emergency hysterectomy put an end to her dream of experiencing pregnancy. Having previously gone to extraordinary lengths during her second bout with cancer to freeze her eggs, “I fought for it so much, and I wasn’t allowed to have it,” she said. Instead, she set her sights on pursuing motherhood via surrogacy. “I’m going to have a family and get married and the whole American, 2½ kids, white-picket-fence dream,” she insisted in October.

And yet even as she remained focused on the future, her health continued to deteriorate. She struggled with what she described as “unending pain,” spending hours in the bathtub and finding occasional relief in medical marijuana. As Brown’s appetite plummeted, so did her weight. “I keep telling the doctor, ‘If you take the pain away, I’ll feel like myself again,’ ” she said.

Still, as her body weakened, she held fast to her belief in living “as hard and as vigorously as you can.” She made plans to write a cancer survivors’ manual, cheered on her beloved Florida State Seminoles and obsessed over details for redecorating her apartment. “Even when she was struggling so much, she wanted projects to work on,” says Rotondi. She was especially eager to create an urban oasis on her patio where she could enjoy a taste of the outdoors. In the hospital on Nov. 12, “I showed her a planter she had ordered, and she was like, ‘Now I just need those rocks to keep the soil warm in the winter.’ There was never any indication that she was entertaining the idea of not being here.”

A day earlier her doctors had told her that nothing more could be done. “They said something about acceptance, and she goes, ‘Are you telling me just to sit here and die? I want to live,’ ” recalls Quarles. When the two prayed together on Nov. 13, “I was saying, ‘Dear Lord, please let this pain leave Diem’s body.’ And she was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere. Pray for peace!’ ”

In her final hours, “we kept telling her, ‘This is not giving up. You have fought enough,’ ” says Rotondi. They cranked up the music (including her favorite, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”) and exchanged remembrances. “It was like summer camp in her room,” says Rotondi. When Megan arrived at her bedside on the morning of Nov. 14, “I said out loud, ‘It’s okay, baby, it’s okay, go to Mom,’ ” she recalls, “and as the last syllable hit my lips, her last breath hit hers.” Minutes later the hospital’s fire alarm went off. “There were strobe lights, and it was so loud—like a dance club,” says Rotondi. “Was she ever going to just say, ‘All right, this is it, I’m ready’? Not a chance.”

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