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Fighting assisted suicide—and brain cancer

Three years after a terminal cancer diagnosis, assisted suicide opponent J.J. Hanson battles on

J.J. Hanson YouTube

Fighting assisted suicide—and brain cancer
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At Christmas, the outlook for Marine veteran J.J. Hanson, 36, was grim. While running a 5K race with his brother-in-law, he had a grand mal seizure. The brain tumors that he had beaten into remission were back and growing.

We profiled Hanson last year in his efforts to defeat the legalization of physician-assisted suicide across the country. The fast-talking New Yorker began advocating against the practice after he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2014 and recognized the temptation to suicide that a terminally ill person can face.

After a period of apparent remission, Hanson’s cancer came back. Now he’s fighting again not just for other people’s survival, but for his own.

Hanson leads the organization Patients’ Rights Action Fund, where he’s been an effective spokesman against assisted suicide: So far this year, no state legislatures have legalized the practice, and measures have failed in 17 states. (Hanson and his cohort have less influence in the courts, where assisted suicide advocates are also pressing their cause.)

Physician-assisted suicide, distinguished from end-of-life decisions on feeding tubes and the like, is where a doctor gives a patient lethal drugs that the patient self-administers at a time of his choosing. The practice is legal in Oregon, California, Colorado, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

Disability groups chiefly oppose its legalization. They argue it would pressure the disabled, who might feel like an economic or emotional burden on their families, to commit suicide—especially when a doctor is endorsing it. Hanson’s own public opposition to the practice grew out of his fight with brain cancer.

In May 2014, doctors diagnosed Hanson, a husband and a father to a baby boy at the time, with stage 4 glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. They gave him four months to live. It’s the same cancer doctors recently discovered in Republican Sen. John McCain and the same cancer assisted suicide advocate Brittany Maynard developed before taking her own life in 2014.

For his part, Hanson responded to the four-month prognosis with aggressive treatment, opting for surgery and then entering a clinical trial. The treatment seemed to work, even though he had a “cognitive loss” after his surgery that required him to relearn how to read, write, and speak. For a time, the cancer was in remission: He traveled to lobby legislatures and also spent time with his wife Kris and young son in their home in the Hudson Valley.

Then came the discouraging news that the cancer was back. The outlook was bleak.

“If there are going to be miracles, this is it,” Hanson said on Facebook last Christmas.

He had brain surgery again just after the holiday. He did chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation. He had to relearn his reading and writing skills again. This time his reading ability has been much slower to return—he plays audio of emails—although he can write quickly.

In late July, he had a meeting with his doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. The doctor was “thrilled,” Hanson said. The MRI report was surprisingly good: His tumor was shrinking. What the doctors had initially thought could be tumor growth after the surgery might in fact have been a normal result of the brain surgery.

The path ahead is still difficult. His medical team will continue a combination of drug infusions with immunotherapy—a “cutting edge” treatment, Hanson said, that seems to be effective. He’ll continue practicing his reading (although his cognitive function already seems higher than mine).

And Hanson continues his work against assisted suicide legislation—he plans to travel more to lobby as he regains strength. After we talked, he connected me with a Nevada doctor, Brian Callister, who recently had two patients transferred to him from California and Oregon. The patients’ insurance companies had denied coverage for general care but agreed to cover assisted suicide drugs. This, Hanson said, is what opponents of assisted suicide had predicted would happen after legalization of the practice.

Hanson maintains his cheerful energy. This second round has been “a lot easier,” he said, because “I know what I’m fighting.” He and his wife have learned how better to support each other through the treatment too, he said.

In July, three years after his diagnosis, he and his wife had a healthy baby boy. And his 4-year-old son got a new brother. Hanson says, “It brings me so much joy.”

Which, of course, is one thing glioblastoma can’t beat.

Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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