On Dec. 30, 2017, as snowflakes fell outside his window, my husband and the love of my life, J.J. Hanson, took his last breath. He was 36 years old. I was with him, holding our two young sons in my arms. We had known the day would come — J.J. had been living with terminal brain cancer for three and a half years. But that was more than three years longer than his doctors had expected.
Learning you or a loved one has a terminal illness is devastating and scary. In our case it was also a shock. J.J. was a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq, a new father, and he had a job he loved. We were living the American dream and thought we had a long future ahead of us, until we learned J.J. had stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme, one of the most aggressive and deadliest forms of brain cancer.
Living through that kind of illness day-to-day is a constant struggle that requires immense courage and great strength. J.J. had both. But even then, he — like many people who receive terminal prognoses — went through dark periods of depression.
Struggling against despair
Our struggle was taking place around the same time Brittany Maynard’s story made headlines across the country. Maynard suffered from the same cancer as J.J. and was roughly the same age, but she famously decided to end her own life through assisted suicide in Oregon and to advocate its legalization in her home state of California.
I didn’t know it then, but J.J. later admitted that during his illness, he sometimes felt such despair that he may have taken a lethal prescription had it been legal in New York, where we lived, and if he had it in his nightstand during his darkest days. He was tempted to believe that ending his life would relieve the burden on his caretakers and allow him to bypass the experience of illness-induced disability that the disease would otherwise cause.
Many people who consider or go through with assisted suicide have similar fears. Data from Oregon — where assisted suicide first became legal — show the main end-of-life concerns that people considering assisted suicide report relate to existential suffering, such as becoming burdensome to caretakers and facing disability. In fact, “inadequate pain control" or concern of physical pain isn’t even in the top five reported reasons.
There’s no telling what would have happened to J.J. and our family if lethal pills were available to him during that dark period. What we do know is that, as J.J. said, the support and hope of loved ones carried him past that difficult time and toward a different conclusion than the one Maynard reached.
Enduring in hope
Hope inspired us to try standard and experimental treatments to combat J.J.’s cancer. Those treatments extended his life beyond the initial four-month prognosis to three and a half years. If we had relied on the initial prognosis, given in to the depression and given up on hope, we would have missed out on so very much. Our oldest son, James, would never have gotten to know his father; our youngest son, Lucas, would never have been born.
Getting through his darkest moments and the temptation to despair made J.J. realize that assisted suicide presents a very real risk for terminally ill patients like him. J.J. and I resolved to fight efforts to legalize assisted suicide, laws that prey on terminally ill patients when they are most vulnerable. Assisted suicide is currently legal in seven states and the District of Columbia. This is a tragedy, and one we can prevent.
J.J. served as president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, an organization that works on behalf of patients to oppose legalizing assisted suicide. We dedicated the last years of J.J.’s life to this because we recognized the "death with dignity" movement for what it is: a well-funded re-branding of euthanasia offering nothing but a message of hopelessness.
If our experience taught us anything, it is to hold on to hope for yourself and for others around you, especially in the face of life-threatening illness. You could be improving their lives, as well as your own.
Kristen Hanson is a community relations advocate with the Patients Rights Action Fund.