Brain Cancer Helped This Spartan Find His Balance
It’s May 13, 2014, 6:30 a.m. Time for work. For J.J. Hanson, it’s going to be another long day. He inhales his breakfast. He believes he’ll be home by 6 p.m. for a high-speed dinner and catch-up with his wife, Kristen. He believes later that night he’ll kiss his son goodnight and pack in a few more hours of work before hitting the sack. He believes all sorts of things. We all do.
J.J. is 33 years old, and he’s been married to Kristen for 12 years. He works long hours because he loves his company—a startup that renovates old properties. Before moving to Florida, he lived in New York. Before all this, he was a Marine: seven months in the Pacific where he helped carry the limp bodies of men, women, and children from the wreckage left by a natural disaster; then seven months in Iraq during a critical transition. J.J. lives his life under a spiritual banner he inherited from his father: Can’t hurt steel.
Fast forward to noon. J.J.’s at work as planned, ready for anything. But then, out of nowhere, the world goes dark.
Back home, Kristen watches her son and her best friend’s son, both just a few months old. She has no idea anything has happened. The giggling kids and the sunshine outside mix in just the way that makes her feel that life is good—so good. The way that makes the hours fly by. It’s afternoon when a buzzing slowly breaks through the noises of the home; it’s Kristen’s phone. She goes to answer it. She sees the screen—it’s J.J., the last person she expects.
It’s not that J.J. never calls. He just doesn’t call in the middle of the day. He’s a busy guy. And as Kristen reaches for the phone, she knows something unusual is going on. But what? She answers, but the voice on the other line isn’t her husband’s. It’s the voice of an EMT. Time grinds to a halt.
“Your husband has had a grand mal seizure.”
By the time Kristen gets to the hospital, it’s been three hours since J.J. lost consciousness. She walks into the ER to find him awake on the table, his vital signs stable.
“We’re thinking it was just a freak event,” the nurse tells Kristen. “Happens to people sometimes. We’re going to send him home.”
Despite the good news, the words seem to echo around the room. Something isn’t right. Kristen can’t put her finger on it, but deep in her gut, she knows that there’s something else she needs to do. There’s a reason why J.J. had this seizure. She knows it. “What about an MRI?” she asks. “Have you done an MRI?”
“No, we don’t need to,” says the nurse. “Your deductible is pretty high, and it’s really not necessary.”
The feeling in Kristen’s gut won’t let up. She insists. J.J. gets an MRI. Six hours later, the doctor is back with J.J.’s MRI results. “There are some lesions in the left temporal lobe,” he says. “Might be cancer, might be nothing. We’ll need to do some further …”
The words dissolve in the thick tension of the room. Kristen stops listening at “cancer.” As far as she’s concerned, the floor has dropped out. She’s falling. But you can’t hurt steel. Or can you?
The Grim Prognosis: Four Months to Live
Another brain biopsy, and no, it’s not just a bad dream. Not only does J.J. have brain cancer, but it’s one of the worst kinds: stage-four glioblastoma multiforme, which kills 70 percent of people within a year and 90 percent within two years. This cancer is inoperable, says the doctor, as if reading a weather report. J.J. steels himself for the inevitable. Kristen hopes there has been some mistake.
“You have about four months to live. Go home and enjoy the time you have with your family.” The doctor walks out of the room. Fear enters.
J.J. and Kristen head back to the apartment. The car is silent for the 40-minute drive. Like a distant firework, the vibrations of the news haven’t caught up to the initial flash. The two arrive back home and walk inside. It’s quiet—their son is still staying with a friend. Overwhelmed, Kristen walks into the bathroom and shuts the door. Suddenly, it’s all real. Kristen crumples to the floor on her knees.
She cries on the bathroom floor for 10, 20, 30 minutes. She loses track of time as she sinks lower and lower in despair. But just before all hope is lost, something clicks in Kristen’s mind: On the off-chance that the doctors are mistaken—that J.J. can live through this disease—then crying on the bathroom floor is not going to help. She gets up, wipes away her tears, and decides to be strong.
If J.J. has any hope of beating glioblastoma multiforme—GBM for short—he knows he needs to act fast. Every second he spends thinking about a solution, the cancer has a chance to creep into new territory. The tumor can double in size within two weeks, J.J. reads online. So, with fresh determination, he and Kristen reach out in all directions.
Not long after J.J. sends out a message on Facebook, he gets a call from a friend at work: “I think I can get you the head of neurosurgery at Florida’s top cancer center.” Luckily, the appointment is the next day, but the second opinion isn’t any better than the first.
“We can do the surgery, but we’re not sure we can get all of it out.”
“Thank you very much.” J.J. makes an appointment. It’s not perfect, but anything is better than being dead. Now for a third opinion. J.J. sets his eyes on Sloan Kettering in New York, his home state. But there’s no room at the inn. J.J. doubles down.
“If we have to kick in the door,” he tells Kristen, “we’re going to do it.”
Fast forward two days. The couple boards a plane to New York City, hell bent on seeing the cancer experts at Sloan Kettering. They have no appointment. They’ll figure it out when they get there. Fifteen minutes before the plane takes off, J.J. gets a call. It’s a friend he grew up with. He says he has a guy.
“He’s one of the top doctors at Sloan Kettering,” the friend says. “And he might be able to fit you in.”
Two days later. J.J. is rolling into the exam room on a gurney at Sloan Kettering under the care of the head neurosurgeon, at the request of an eminent oncologist. It pays to know a guy. For the first time since J.J.’s diagnosis, a doctor smiles.
“We do three of these a day. Don’t worry.”
After Brain Cancer Surgery, Another Step Back
It’s 6:30 a.m. Time for work. J.J. heads to Sloan Kettering in an ambulance. Soon after he’s wheeled into surgery and wakes up seven hours later. He’s speaking German now—learned it in college—and all of his friends and family don’t know what the hell he’s saying. A few minutes later, he’s back to English. The doctors tell him they’ve removed 99.9 percent of his tumors. Can’t hurt steel.
A day goes by. Things are looking good. He’s alive. You can’t hurt steel.
Another day goes by. He’s on the road to recovery. You can’t hurt steel.
A third day. You can’t—
You can’t speak. Or walk. Or respond to what you hear.
“He appears to be conscious, but his speech is completely offline.”
“What does it mean? JJ, can you hear me?”
“His memory is significantly impaired.”
“Maybe he’s having seizures right now? Can we check for that?”
“We can check.”
Suddenly, J.J. starts snapping his fingers. Snap, snap, snap.
“J.J., are you okay?” asks Kristen.
No words, just snaps. Snap, snap, snap. J.J. is pointing at his head.
“Are you having a seizure right now?”
The silence explodes. “YES, YES, YES.” It’s all J.J. can say. “YES,” with the rhythm of his snapping fingers. The doctors wheel him down the hall for an MRI.
Over the next few days, doctors watch him go through nine grand mal seizures, which knock out his abilities one by one, like earthquakes darkening a city district by district. Finally, they find a pill that works. Things calm down, but J.J. still can’t write, read, walk, or speak.
He’s fully conscious, but he can’t put his thoughts into words. Kristen is sitting by his side with his hand in hers. She’s watching him. She holds up a picture of his son. J.J. knows his face; he misses him. But as hard as he tries, he can’t put a word to the face he loves—not until after two days of silence, when he sees his son’s face and something finally clicks.
“Boy,” says J.J. It’s all he can say. But he says it and he means it. “Boy. Boy. Boy.” He looks from the photo to Kristen, and he sees hope in her eyes. He takes his seizure medication. You can’t hurt steel.
Life After Brain Cancer: Relearning to Talk, Walk & Run
In recovery, the tasks are simple but the hours are long. Turn a thought into a word. Move the mouth and make sounds. Shuffle the right limb in the right way at the right time. Eat the food. Survive, grow, adapt.
Slowly but surely, J.J.’s severed neural connections find alternate routes. Words are coming out of his mouth. He’s walking down and back one city block. On a good day, he bumps it up to two. One day at a time, one word at a time. Finally, after a month, it’s time to leave the hospital and relocate to a place J.J. knows well—his parents’ home in New York. There, it’s physical and mental rehab for three months.
The routine starts off early in the morning, while their son is still asleep. J.J. sits with Kristen, who points at trees, their house, a table—and waits for J.J. to remember what they’re called. For Kristen, it’s like Groundhog Day every day—the same frustrating routine, the absurd repetition of simple sentences with a man she’s known for 12 years. But each word is a victory, a sign of slow, steady transformation. Over time, J.J. finds strategies for finding forgotten words, and his speech becomes more and more fluent.
Between lessons, J.J. challenges himself to walk. After a month, he can walk to the end of his parents’ driveway and back. The weight he gained from inactivity and taking steroids in the hospital holds him back, but with persistence J.J. works up to a 5K brain cancer walk in August. The walk is exhausting—the hardest thing he’s done since leaving the hospital—but his family is there to give him love and support. They see him coming back a little more each day.
Finally, three months after his surgery, J.J. is stable enough to return to his home and workplace in Florida. Galvanized by his success at the cancer 5K, J.J. decides it’s time to take his physical fitness up a notch.
Looking back at his brief competitive career in Spartan races, J.J.’s new goal becomes clear: to get back into Spartan shape. Using scalable bodyweight workouts, J.J. does just this. Over the next six months, he rebuilds his lost endurance and strength. Then he signs up for a Spartan Stadium Race in Tampa with a team from work.
He nails it.
Three months later, he’s at it again at the Citi Field Sprint; then the Ohio Spartan Beast, the Tri-State Sprint, the Pennsylvania Sprint …
Racing Is Life, But Life Isn’t a Race
J.J. wakes up at 6:30 a.m. and heads outside. He meets his friends and wrecks a workout. The grind isn’t as intense as it used to be—he doesn’t want to be found collapsed and foaming on the side of the road.
Three years after his terminal cancer diagnosis, J.J. is still living in Florida with his family. While reading Spartan Fit!, he converted to a ketogenic diet. Using the Spartan Workout of the Day, he has honed his body into competitive shape and regularly places in the top 20 in Spartan competitive heats.
He wakes up the day after a Spartan race, sore as hell, with a bit of mud still caked into his ears. He smiles, remembering he placed well.
So much for dying.
After reading about Joe De Sena’s own wake-up call, J.J. realized he wasn’t living his ideal life, and that he needed to work less and spend more time with his family. Gone are the 80-hour workweeks and the 10-minute meals. “I’m living the life that I love and I truly enjoy,” he says. “Every day I live like it’s my last.”
His one piece of advice for all Spartans: “You can’t hurt steel. You have to be the best version of yourself in this moment. You have it in you to fight, to move forward. Know that every day is a gift. Being a Spartan is a great way to continue to challenge yourself—your mind, heart, and body.”