"I had 1,000 days more than the average kid with osteosarcoma," James Ragan said before his tragic death

By Diane Herbst
Updated April 01, 2016 02:55 PM
Credit: Courtesy Until20.com

At 13, James Ragan was an affable, lanky, top-ranked junior tennis player in Texas, competing in Europe for the summer and dreaming of life as a pro. A sudden swelling in his left knee caused concern, but James never imagined what would soon unfold.

Doctors discovered he had osteosarcoma – a rare and often fatal form of bone cancer.

The aggressive cancer spread to his lungs and continued to return on an almost annual basis. With six painful surgeries in seven years, surgeons would no sooner cut the tumors from his lungs when they’d return. Once it metastasizes, there is no cure.

James died at 20 years old, but he embraced every minute he had on earth while doing what he could to help eradicate the disease.

A spirited young man with an easy smile, James frequently visited other kids with cancer at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he was treated. He held fundraising toga parties and golf tournaments, and founded the non-profit Triumph Over Kid Cancer. In total, he helped raise $3 million for pediatric cancer research.

“Before I had cancer, I don’t really remember going out of my way to do anything nice for someone else,” he told his high school classmates in an inspiring graduation speech as class salutatorian in 2011.

But once cancer struck, he said, “I always go out of my way to find someone to help.”

In what turned out to be his last year, James opened his life to filmmakers Geraldine Moriba, a fellow sarcoma cancer patient who has been in remission for 12 years, and Jamila Paksima.

James hoped the film, Until 20, would not only increase awareness of rare pediatric cancers and help increase funding to find a cure, he also wanted to help viewers learn from his short but full life about what truly matters.

The intimate and moving emotional documentary is now being shown at film festivals and screenings across the world. It is also being distributed through Tugg.com.

“Genuinely, he wanted to help other kids with cancer,” Moriba tells PEOPLE.

His father, Jim Ragan, an attorney, admits watching the film “causes some deeply mixed emotions.”

“It’s really, really nice to see his face and hear his voice again,” Jim tells PEOPLE. “It’s difficult emotionally for everybody. It is very difficult for us to see video of him without extraordinarily fond memories of him.

“You can be thankful you had 20 extraordinary years or you can be angry you didn’t get 40 years,” he continues. “That seems to be a fairly easy choice to make.”

James was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his left leg the summer between seventh and eighth grade. He underwent chemotherapy and surgery, and doctors told him he was cancer free. But five months after his treatment ended – at the start of his freshman year of high school – James found out the cancer had returned, with tumors growing in his lungs. That’s when he learned he had metastatic osteosarcoma.

“It was difficult at first. It’s a lot for a 13-year-old child when you lose so much,” Jim shares. “Your physical appearance is altered, you lose so many things physically – tennis – it was difficult.”

But thanks to his spirited personality and the tremendous support of his family, which includes his devoted mother, Gloria, and younger sister, Mecklin, now a medical student, James learned a meaningful, happy way to live.

“At the end of the day, he had already lost so much, he didn’t want to lose today worrying about what would happen tomorrow and what happened yesterday,” Jim says.

“He said, ‘I lost yesterday, something bad may happen tomorrow, but if I sit here and worry about those two things I am going to lose today too.’ It was an approach that made sense to him.”

Despite surgeries and chemotherapy that left him in tremendous pain, James took up golf, and became so good that he earned a spot on the Division I team at Rice University.

“It was a huge thing for him to go through everything he went through and accomplish that goal,” Jim says. “It meant everything to him.”

The film also shows the joy of James falling in love with a fellow Rice student, and the heartbreak of receiving the news that tumors had grown around his heart just days after his first date.

“When we got the news in January that it was over, it was a shock to us,” Jim says.

James left school and returned home to Corpus Christi, and spent his precious time surrounded by an endless stream of family and friends. He also spent countless hours texting his newfound love.

“The closer you get to death,” he says in the film, “the more you want to live.”

A week before his death, Moriba filmed her final scenes with James.

“The last interview, he said, ‘This is the room I am going to die in’ and he said, ‘I had 1,000 days more than the average kid with osteosarcoma, and he shrugs his shoulders and smiles,” Moriba recalls.

“And I am on the other side of the camera and weeping and I say, ‘How can you be so calm and casual about that?’ And he said he was at peace with his life and that he lived a really good life.”