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1/4/2018 9:00:00 AM
On the death of James 'JJ' Hanson
Physician-assisted suicide protester passes away at 36
BISHOP SCHARFENBERGER WITH Kristen and JJ Hanson at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany in 2015.
BISHOP SCHARFENBERGER WITH Kristen and JJ Hanson at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany in 2015.
(Editor's note: Mrs. Gallagher is director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, which advocates on public policy issues on behalf of the state's bishops, and a friend of the Hanson family.)

"I've heard it said/That people come into our lives for a reason,/Bringing something we must learn,/And we are led to those who help us most to grow, if we let them./And we help them in return./Well, I don't know if I believe that's true,/But I know I'm who I am today because I knew you." - From the song "For Good," from the musical "Wicked."

He was a part of my life for less than three years.  I will never forget JJ Hanson's first phone call. He was direct, telling me he was a New Yorker and a cancer patient, and he wanted to help in the battle against legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

He turned out to be the whole package: young, handsome, articulate, faith-filled, politically astute, a Marine Corps veteran, a loving husband and father. And he had been handed a death sentence with the most lethal brain cancer that exists.

But he was a fighter, strong and upbeat. I never met anyone so positive in my entire life. "Every day is a gift, and you can't ever let that go," he would often say. He never said no to any of my requests: speaking at conferences, meeting with lawmakers, doing TV and radio interviews, networking with new groups.

JJ became the face of hope and alternatives to suicide, both in New York State and across the nation. He advocated for the terminally ill, for cancer patients, for access to medications, for palliative care and hospice.

He did it all while undergoing treatments, surgeries and new therapies. He once called me from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center while he was undergoing an immunotherapy infusion!

I never heard him complain or say a bad word about anyone. Lord knows he had difficult times, fighting pain, depression, frustration and unimaginable grief. He relied on God and his family. His wife, Kris, was his rock. She finished the sentences he struggled to complete as his cognitive abilities failed. They were more than a team; they were a single unit, bonded by deep love.

JJ outlived his initial four-month prognosis by more than three years. In that time, he inspired and changed countless human lives, mine included. Yes, ours was a professional relationship, but JJ was also my friend and, in many ways, a mentor. Here are the lessons he taught me in the brief time I was privileged to know him:

•  Life is a gift. Absorb every precious moment of it.

•  Cherish your family.

•  No matter the misery or the desperation, there is always hope.

•  Smile. It's infectious.

•  You can't hurt steel.

•  Stern as death is love.

JJ Hanson went home to God just a few days short of the new year. His was a loving example of an authentic "death with dignity." I am blessed to have known him, and because I did, I have been changed, for good.

(Editor's note: The New York State Catholic Conference, which advocates on public policy issues on behalf of all the state's bishops, issued this statement; also included are remarks specifically from Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger. Read previous stories on James "JJ" Hanson at www.evangelist.org.)

"James 'JJ' Hanson, an outspoken advocate for patients rights and against physician-assisted suicide, died of brain cancer Dec. 30 at the age of 36. Mr. Hanson, a Hudson Valley resident, retired Marine and one-time member of the administration of former Gov. David Paterson, leaves behind his wife, Kristen, and two young sons, James and Lucas.

"For nearly three years, he has worked closely with the New York State Catholic Conference and the New York Alliance Against Assisted Suicide to educate others about the dangers of doctor-assisted suicide and the compelling alternatives for patients facing terminal illness, using the power of his own story to change hearts and minds.

"When first diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, doctors gave JJ four months to live, but he kept fighting, kept seeking out new treatments, and channeled his personal tragedy into advocacy in defense of the sacredness of all human life.

"Initially, JJ's doctors offered him no hope, but he and Kristen had hope in abundance," said Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the Catholic Conference, who became close to the Hanson family. "He outlived that death sentence by more than three years, giving hope and inspiration to thousands of people during that time.

"He reached out to doctors, veterans groups and other organizations, persuaded lawmakers and journalists, raised funds for cancer research, traveled to Albany, Washington, D.C., and states all across the country, and took every opportunity to promote compassionate life-affirming care for persons facing disease and disability. And he did that while facing tremendous health hurdles, undergoing surgeries and treatments, and caring for his family.

  "JJ lived his motto: 'Every day is a gift, and you can't ever let that go.' He and Kristen are a true testament to living their faith through adversity, and JJ's death is a loving example of an authentic 'death with dignity.' We are so grateful to Kristen and the boys for sharing JJ with us these last three years and enabling him to touch so many lives. We pray for their comfort and solace in this very difficult time."

Bishop Scharfenberger stated: "As we mourn the loss of our friend and fellow advocate, James 'JJ' Hanson, we choose not to focus on the great sorrow surrounding his death -- and there surely is much sorrow for his beloved wife, Kristen, and their children, as well as his extended family and friends.

"Instead, today, we choose to focus on the great good JJ did during his time on Earth, especially during the past few years of his life, when his battle with cancer became for him an opportunity to show the strength of his faith and the power of love and determination. He inspired us all and will continue to do so whenever we face struggles in our own lives and remember his example of grace under pressure.

"We are grateful, too, for his commitment to life, even at its most vulnerable and difficult stages. In his role as president of the Patients' Rights Action Fund, JJ spoke out against the push to legalize physician-assisted suicide in New York State and beyond. He was a force to be reckoned with, both in his battle against cancer and in his defense of all life. We will miss him. We pray for the repose of his soul and for the beautiful family he leaves behind."

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