ORLANDO, Fla. – Kristen Hanson, community relations advocate for the Patient Rights Action Fund, told the emotional story of her husband's battle with brain cancer and how the couple fought it knowing "every single day is a gift."
She spoke during the annual Florida Culture of Life Conference, hosted by the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida. The daylong conference Oct. 24 was a virtual gathering due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Hers was a heartwarming and passionate presentation showing the value of preserving life and why assisted suicide in America symbolizes a nation of potential hopelessness.
Currently, seven states and the District of Columbia allow assisted suicide – a physician-aided agreement to end a patient's life based solely on the patient qualifying for death under state law – determined to be terminally ill or otherwise incapacitated in the state's view.
Although Hanson's husband, James Joseph Jr., known as JJ, succumbed to cancer in 2017, his voice was heard during the presentation – "Warriors of Hope: Fighting Against Assisted Suicide in America."
Hanson first showed two short videos of her family that were filmed before JJ died. The couple discussed their ordeal and what kept them from losing hope.
"We were living, what people would consider is, the American dream," JJ had said in the video of the time spent with his wife and then-infant son, James. "May of 2014, I started to feel, what felt like, a deep anxiety attack and I knew something was wrong with me because it kept getting worse. At that point, my ability to speak began to go away."
After a visit to the doctors, the Hansons discovered JJ, 33, was suffering from an aggressive form of brain cancer – glioblastoma multiform, or GBM – on his left temporal lobe.
Because of the particular placement of the cancerous tumors, doctors were hesitant to operate for fear of doing damage to JJ's brain, such as losing the ability to speak and comprehend language.
Physicians told JJ he had roughly four months to live. In his best-case scenario, maybe a year.
"In that moment, time stood still," Hanson said of her panic. "I couldn't breathe. Everything went silent except for the pounding of my heart and the sound of my own voice in my head crying out why? Why only four months? ... We have a baby. Our poor baby. Poor James."
But the couple urged one another not to give up hope. JJ surpassed that four-month mark by more than three years before his death – he even went into remission for a couple of years during that time.
As the two family videos were broadcast, conference attendees could see a thumbnail photo of Hanson in the upper-right hand corner. She was watching the video just as conference visitors were. The first family video was about six minutes in length. The end of the video shows JJ and Kristen sitting together looking at one another. Kristen is heard saying, "I'm more in love with you now than I ever thought possible."
"Every single day is a gift, and you can't let that go," JJ said.
The next video was shot when her husband only had weeks to live. His voice sounded different, his body was affected by his illness. But the couple continued to state how they had to "hold on to hope."
"You cannot think about assisted suicide in one situation. You have to think about who it could hurt. ... The joys we have experienced in these last three and a half years are too many to count, and when if we had given up hope we would have missed out on so much," Hanson said before echoing her husband's words. "Every moment we share together is a gift."
Shortly after his diagnosis, JJ underwent surgery. "The neurosurgeon removed the two tumors and actually found a third smaller tumor," Hanson said.
JJ's recovery started off well. But later that week, he had difficulty speaking and answering questions. Suspecting JJ was having sub-clinical seizures, Hanson convinced the doctors to perform an EEG. She was correct. JJ had a total of 10 seizures since his operation.
"I had to hold onto hope," she said. Bouts of radiation and chemotherapy followed. "We enrolled him in a clinical trial and thankfully, JJ went into remission for almost two years."
In late October 2016, JJ's cancer reemerged. Immediately after he began his new treatment, the Hansons discovered they were going to have another baby. "In July of 2017, we welcomed our little miracle baby into the world."
That joy was short-lived when JJ's new therapy wasn't working as expected. Yet, they chose to enjoy life and whatever time they had together than turn toward death.
"JJ chose to fight against the ableism that permeates our society and our medical system, and which has perhaps its most deadly expression in assisted suicide policy," Hanson said.
Hanson recalled when she and her husband saw news stories about Brittany Maynard, 29, who gained notoriety for her decision to end her own life. First diagnosed in early January 2014 and again in April with additional forms of brain cancer, Maynard was given six months to live.
A California native, Maynard moved to Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal.
"I remember when we first saw (Maynard) on TV, we could see so clearly how her story was being glamorized to perpetuate a message of hopelessness," Hanson told the pro-life conference. "JJ looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, 'Kris, if I had suicide pills with me in my nightstand a few weeks ago, I might have taken them. And you can't undo that. This is so dangerous for patients like me.'"
JJ took initiative to publicize his story, she said. "JJ connected with the Patient Rights Action Fund and a few week later, PRAF came to capture our story," Hanson said. Eventually, JJ was asked to helm the organization as its president, "leading the national fight against the legalization of assisted suicide."
He knew the campaign that promotes assisted suicide is strong because it appeals to people who are in their most susceptible state, Hanson said. He made his wife promise that after his death, she would continue sharing the family's story to protect the vulnerable against the threat of legalized assisted suicide."
Hanson cited several examples why assisted suicide continues to be problematic for people told they have a terminal illness, including:
– "Doctors make mistakes" in their diagnoses.
– "Insurance companies deny care and offer a cheap death instead."
– "Mental health conditions often go ignored and patients struggling with depression receive the medication."
"Pain is not the reason patients end their lives by assisted suicide," she continued. "When a person chooses assisted suicide, it is typically out of "existential suffering or disability related concerns at the end of life, such as fear of being a burden to friends and family."
The legalization of assisted suicide sets up a discriminatory system that determines who may live and who may die, she said. "This insidious form of ableism results in death to the devalued group and nothing could be more discriminatory."
Beaulieu is on the staff of the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Orlando.