By J.J. Hanson
I am a 30-something Marine Corps veteran who was given four months to live 20 months ago — diagnosed with glioblastoma brain cancer. I fought for treatment that was so difficult there were times when I questioned if the struggle was worth the pain. My experience is similar to that of thousands of New Jersey residents who every year face terminal diagnoses. Often, I wonder if I would still be alive if I had the legal assisted suicide drugs at my bedside when I was fighting through those difficult days.
When I was at my physical and emotional worst, I became aware of a young California woman named Brittany Maynard who faced the same horrible diagnosis as mine. She took her cancer story public, and it was used to headline a national effort to “normalize” assisted suicide; a notion that had previously been rejected by dozens of states. The message sent to patients across the country, who, like me, wanted to fight and live was now — “assisted suicide may be the best option for you.” I recognized this as a huge danger.
My experience has provided me perspective and made me a strong opponent of S382, the legislation currently in the New Jersey Senate to legalize assisted suicide. My personal story is a clear example to why vulnerable and very sick people like me should not be offered suicide as a medical treatment. In May 2014, I was attending a business meeting when I suddenly felt something in my body going horribly wrong. I woke up in an ambulance to find out I had suffered a grand mal seizure.
I was rushed to the hospital where an MRI revealed two lesions in my brain. A brain biopsy gave the worst possible news. Growing in my left temporal lobe was stage 4 glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive and deadliest forms of cancer, capable of doubling in size in just two weeks.
My wife, Kris, was dealt the devastating news that I had terminal brain cancer and given a grim prognosis. Even though I was perfectly healthy a few days before, doctors believed that, based on the location and growth rate of my cancer, I had roughly four months to live. The doctors told my wife the tumors were inoperable and that we should enjoy the time we had left together. If assisted suicide were legal and based on that diagnosis, I could have gone to any doctor regardless of whether I had a previous relationship with them or not, and received a lethal prescription in a matter of days; and my insurance company would have likely paid for it — saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Instead, assisted suicide was not an option and Kris and I worked hard to get a second and a third opinion; ultimately, finding a doctor who was able to remove the majority of the cancerous tumors. I then underwent radiation, chemotherapy and participated in a clinical trial for a new experimental drug.
The last 20 months have not been easy. I endured a lot of physical and emotional pain and had 11 seizures. There were days when I completely lost all of my most basic physical abilities. I couldn’t talk, walk, read or write. During those times, I questioned whether it was worth it. Would it be easier if I just gave up?
I can’t help but think about if I had the choice to request assisted suicide drugs, and if I had used those drugs during those difficult moments. I would have lost the opportunity to make memories with my wife and son. I was terminal and I qualified under the New Jersey proposal, and a similar bill offered in New York. Assisted suicide is a decision that you can’t unmake. My wife would be without a husband and my son without a father.
My cancer is now in remission. My experience led me to join the national organization Patients Rights Action Fund as its president to help counter assisted suicide, and so that my story can serve as an example of hope to those who may feel hopeless due to a terminal diagnosis. I urge the New Jersey Legislature with every fiber of my being to reject the idea that lethal drugs are an answer to serious illness or terminal diagnoses. Without a doubt, people similar to me facing desperate situations will feel like assisted suicide is their only option. In our society we should be focused on giving hope to the vulnerable and the sick at their greatest time of need, not taking hope away.
J.J. Hanson is president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, the nation’s leading organization protecting the rights of patients and people with disabilities by opposing assisted suicide legalization efforts.