JJ Hanson’s legacy is a witness of courage and strength in the face of terminal illness and the false compassion of assisted suicide
While we are celebrating Advent, some might say JJ Hanson and his family are experiencing something of a Lent.
Hanson is a veteran Marine, husband and father of two boys. He’s also a terminally ill cancer patient living his last days at his parents' home in Yulan, New York.
Three years ago, Hanson was diagnosed with glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive cancerous tumors one can get.
Another person in the public eye with the same disease was Brittany Maynard, a woman who made headlines and the cover of People magazine for her decision to end her life.
Maynard moved to Oregon where assisted suicide was legal and, through a partnership with the pro-euthanasia group, Compassion & Choices, became a leading advocate for assisted suicide.
Hanson’s illness manifested itself in debilitating ways. When he was diagnosed, three doctors told him that his condition was inoperable and that he had four months to live. But the fourth doctor Hanson visited took him in at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City.
Getting the treatment he needed came with costs ― and not just financial ones. After each surgery, Hanson experienced advanced disabilities; his cognitive and motor skills were diminished, and at times he couldn’t walk, talk, read or write.
After each major surgery, it took months of hard work for him to gain back his abilities, and all the while his gains could be lost again with an unpredictable seizure at any time. It’s hard to think of a more modern-day telling of a Sisyphean feat.
The dark side
About five months into the fight, Hanson grew depressed. It occurred to him: What if he could order the pills to end his life, and no one had to know? In some states, it would be that easy, and Hanson said, were he located in one such state, he couldn’t say whether he would be alive today.
“In that moment of depression,” said in an online video, “I might have chosen to end my life.”
But he pressed on.
“That kind of depression and suicidal ideation is very common for these patients with terminal prognosis,” Matt Valliere, executive director of the Patient Rights Action Fund (PRAF) and good friend, told me in a phone interview. Ultimately, Hanson realized, as Valliere recounted, “I don’t need those pills. I need counseling. I need help.”
About one year after his diagnosis, Hanson’s doctors could see his cancer in remission. As Hanson shared in PRAF’s video, if he had chosen suicide, “I wouldn’t feel the pain, the emotion, but my wife would feel it for the rest of her life. My son would not have one more day to spend with me.”
Hanson had already outlived his life expectancy by double at this point, and his life had grown new meaning. Despite knowing his cancer would return indefinitely, he decided to make his moments count.
He joined the staff of PRAF, taking his personal story to make a national case against assisted suicide on the grounds that it takes advantage of patients in their most vulnerable and dark moments.
In the meantime, Maynard became the face of the pro-euthanasia forces, her activism attracting national attention. She eventually took her life on Nov. 2, 2014, and assisted-suicide legislation spread quickly ― with 23 states proposing legislation in 2015, 26 states in 2016 and 29 states in 2017.
Most of these measures have failed, something Valliere attributes to Hanson’s advocacy.
“Without his sacrifice of his personal story and time,” Valliere is convinced, “there would be quite a number of states that would have passed assisted-suicide laws. Half the nation for the past few years has been considering assisted suicide. A couple states have passed: California, Colorado and Washington, D.C. But a great number have not. And some of those were fairly close.”
For this, we have media appearances, one-on-one meetings with legislators and testimonies at hearings to thank.
Advocate for life
Hanson advocated for resources and attention to be spent seeking advancements in palliative care, pain management and more affordable treatments for terminally ill people, rather than premature death.
According to Hanson and PRAF, patients shouldn’t have to choose between burdening their families with debt to pay for a prescribed treatment that their health insurance doesn’t cover, and ending their life with pills that their insurance does cover, as a California woman named Stephanie Packer did. But this is exactly what happens when states legalize medically assisted suicide.
It comes down to the question of what makes life have value, doesn’t it? Our Catholic teaching tells us it’s innate to our humanness — that we’re beloved sons and daughters of God, and that our lives have value from the moment of conception until natural death, but sometimes we can have doubts.
Did it matter that lived those last years, in the grand scheme of things? Was it worth the costs and suffering?
Ask his wife, Kristen, who knows he’d stop at nothing to lengthen his time on earth with her. Ask his 5-year-old son, who is now old enough to grow up with real memories of his father. Ask his infant son born last August, who would not exist if had Hanson had given up the fight.
Without doubt JJ lived a life of immeasurable impact simply living out his vocation.
We could also ask what Hanson’s life meant to the community of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses whom he will be representing until his last breath.
Hanson used a motto during his fight with cancer, “You can’t break steel.”
Now, Valliere said, he realizes this wasn’t about his fight of the disease as much as the nature of true love. “JJ lived a loving life,” said Valliere.
“That love is sometimes a hard love. It doesn’t always look like hugs and kisses and peaches and cream. Real love — that’s the steel that you can’t hurt. We ought not to let things like this break the steel of our hope. Similarly, if you give your life to others and to love, that’s a similar steel that simply cannot be broken, not with death, not with disease. That’s the deeper meaning, and I’m grateful to him for that.”
Valliere described his visit to see JJ at the hospital, the week prior to our conversation.
“He’s not speaking straight sentences. He knows he’s dying. But he’s receiving his guests as a gracious host. He’s still thinking of others. He made me drive to the grocery store so he could buy his wife some flowers.”
For most of their conversation, he said, was trying to think of more ways to offer hope and encouragement to others. “That is strength in true weakness,” Valliere said.
Maybe his story is more fitting for Advent and Christmas, after all. There’s a poverty in it, but there’s also a hope. The stable in Bethlehem was a setting almost unimaginable for giving birth, much less sleeping for a night. And yet God had glorious plans for it.
The terminally ill person’s existence is unimaginable, too. It’s a very human wish to make it all stop.
But at Christmas we’re invited to see the beauty in the unglamorous. We’re invited to welcome the king in swaddling clothes. We’re invited to walk his path.
As JJ Hanson's life comes to a close this Christmas, we can witness a model Christian, husband, father and citizen do just that.
Mary Rose Somarriba is a writer and editor living in Cleveland, Ohio.
Editor’s note: Please join in easing the Hanson family’s financial burdens from his medical treatments by donating here: www.youcaring.com/canthurtsteel.