“I was sitting in bed realizing my daughter has incurable cancer, and I felt helpless," says mom Janet Ramirez, who found unexpected inspiration in OneRepublic's song “I Lived”

By Michelle Boudin
January 29, 2020 02:24 PM
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Courtesy John Ramirez

John Ramirez vividly remembers the day almost three years ago when doctors told him his teenage daughter Leanna had a rare and potentially deadly brain tumor.

“It was an out-of-body experience,” the 48-year-old father tells PEOPLE, describing how “severe symptoms” pushed Leanna, now 18, to tears in the emergency room.

“She’d been having migraines for weeks,” John says. “They did the MRI that showed the tumor at her brain stem.”

After four rounds of chemo, 33 rounds of radiation, and two brain surgeries, doctors told the Ramirez family they couldn’t get the entire tumor and there was a 50-50 chance the cancer would come back in the next five years. The family went into survival mode.

Leanna has lost hearing in her left ear, still has intense daily headaches, and suffers from memory loss. Now a senior at Hilliard Davidson High School in Dublin, Ohio, she can only handle attending two class periods a day and admits it’s been a tough few years.

“The hardest part is trying to stay positive for my family, trying to keep a smile on my face,” she says.

Leanna Ramirez amid her brain tumor battle
Courtesy John Ramirez

About a year ago, her mother Janet figured out a way to help that. The 46 year old was listening to the OneRepublic’s “I Lived” when the song’s message sparked an idea.

“I was sitting in bed realizing my daughter has incurable cancer, and I felt helpless,” says Janet. “I wanted to give her hope somehow, and that song helped me realize we could win by focusing on what we do with the days we’re given instead of focusing on what the cancer is taking form us. We decided to look at what she would do in a lifetime and make it happen when she’s here and she’s healthy.”

They dubbed it the “I Lived List,” and launched a GoFundMe to help makes the dreams a reality.

“It’s kind of like a bucket list,” Leanna explains. “Me and my mom sat down and made a list together.”

The first thing they crossed off? A trip to Maui, Hawaii for the whole family, complete with a helicopter tour of the island. The family (including little brother Julian) has also swam with dolphins, zip-lined in the Pocono Mountains, and cuddled with koalas at the Columbus Zoo.

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Leanna and her family say one of the best experiences inspired by the list happened during a visit to New York’s Times Square over the holidays.

“I have always loved the idea of going to New York City in the wintertime to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and go ice skating, so that was definitely on my list,” she says.

The family even got a special escort to see the ball drop at midnight in Times Square, and on New Year’s Day took a carriage ride through Central Park on New Year’s Day.

“We are living differently now,” Janet tells PEOPLE. “We don’t think ahead, we think about today and making things happen. You have to go outside your comfort zone. You have to say yes.”

The family is also working with other kids fighting cancer to help them make — and complete — their own “I Lived” lists.

They’re also getting ready to check off a pretty big goal: In June, they’ll rent an RV and drive-cross country for three weeks. Leanna says she can’t wait.

“Having the list has been amazing,” she says.