As Brittany Maynard was preparing to take advantage of Oregon’s assisted suicide law in 2014, former Marine J.J. Hanson was going through the fight of his life.
Hanson had the same condition as Maynard, the 29-year-old Californian who very publicly decided to end her life rather than suffer through what was thought to be an incurable brain cancer.
But while Maynard opted for a “final exit,” creating controversy and buzz and, some believe, momentum for the assisted-suicide movement, Hanson went through a transformation.
He had not given the issue of assisted suicide much thought up until then. If pressed, he might offer a feeble, “I don’t think it’s right, but I’m not going to try to stop you if you think it’s right for you.”
But on May 13, 2014, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma and told that he’d have four months to live—perhaps up to a year.
“It’s been difficult, and the difficulties are what really brought me around on the issue of assisted suicide,” he said in an interview this past week, having beat the original odds his doctors gave him. After first getting the grim news, he and wife Kristen looked for answers and alternatives everywhere they could. Hanson had surgery, chemo and radiation, but he was also accepted into a clinical trial for an experimental drug. The medication made him sicker than he had been from the chemo.
“For four weeks I couldn’t get out of bed,” he recalled. “I was going through some significant difficulties with the illness, going through a lot of emotional difficulties with my family, my wife. It’s a big burden on your family and those who are around you.”
Hanson had a promising start and a hopeful future before his diagnosis. He earned degrees in political science and public service, served with the Marines in Iraq, and held a good position in the administration of former New York State Gov. David A. Paterson.
But the cancer—and the strains he was experiencing during the experimental treatment—threw him into a depression.
“And the question came within my mind, ‘Is this worth the fight, or should I just give up? Should I stop fighting and go a different route?’ Because everyone was telling me this is unbeatable. I was told by three different doctors that I couldn’t beat the disease.”
Maybe it was the Marine in him that led him to carry on.
“I was a fairly strong person. I said, ‘We’re going to fight this with everything we can.’ And my motivation came back very quickly and I got over the difficulty I was going through at that point.”
Hanson now is taking his fight up a level. As president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, he is speaking out against a move to legalize physician-assisted suicide in his native New York State.
On Monday, the state Assembly’s health committee was expected to vote on a bill that would legalize the practice. Hanson said he expected a close vote in the committee, but he didn’t feel the legislation would get too far in the full Assembly and Senate.
He wasn’t leaving it to chance, though, and on Friday he was working the phones with members of the health committee.
Hanson said he’s motivated to fight against assisted suicide because he knows that a significant portion of the population is easily swayed. When he and Maynard were facing the same fate and the same choices, he recalled, “every narrative I heard in the media was that because of [glioblastoma], there was no alternative available for you. The only thing you could do is accept the difficulty of dying painfully or you could move to Oregon. I knew on two levels that that wasn’t true.”
He knew, for one thing, that there were survivors of the disease. “And given the cutting-edge research that was going on, the longer I lasted the better opportunity I had that we’d find an actual cure and extend my life.
“Secondly I knew that you didn’t have to end your life to die with dignity,” he continued. “In fact I knew that there were great resources [such as hospice] when you have a terminal disease and your life is ending, to lengthen your life and to enjoy it, to spend time with your family.”
He argues that the legalization of assisted suicide will have an effect on many people. “It’s not just about one individual,” he said. “Many people make the argument that ‘this is just about me and about how I want to die as an individual; it’s about choice and personal autonomy and nothing else. What I’ve learned is that it’s not the case. In fact, assisted suicide is a unique issue in that it affects multiple people on multiple levels. Those who are most at risk and impacted by the decision are the most vulnerable. As a society, we should not be increasing the risk for more of them, we should be working to help them find a better alternative. Many people argue that they want to have this option because they’re afraid of pain at the end or they’re afraid of being a burden. There are very few people who actually experience this at the end of life. Most people die a fairly peaceful, respectful, dignified death.”
Assisted suicide removes the motivation researchers and public policy leaders have to find solutions for pain and suffering, he argued.
“If those pills had been available when I was going through my most difficult time, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have taken them,” he admitted. “According to [the legislation being debated in New York], there would have been no followup, no oversight and no regulation. I would not have had a doctor checking on me to see what I had done with those pills. … I would have taken my life prematurely, and that’s the danger here.”
He noted that while physician-assisted suicide is now legal in five states, suicide rates have shot up over the past 15 years. “You’re just giving someone an easy way to commit suicide,” he charged. “You’re basically creating a culture that glorifies suicide and says, ‘This is a courageous way to die.’”
Hanson fought—and so far he’s won.
“I just hit my two-year mark from when I was diagnosed—on May 13—and there’s no sign of cancer within the brain,” he said.