Seminarian Phillip, Terminal Brain Cancer, Response to Brittany Maynard

Source Diocese of Raleigh, via LifeSite News
Wed Oct 22, 2014

I am a Catholic seminarian. I have terminal brain cancer. This is my response to Brittany Maynard.

“May Brittany come to understand the love that we all have for her before she takes her own life, and that if she chooses instead to fight this disease, her life and witness would be an incredible example and inspiration to countless others.”

Last week I came across the heartbreaking story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer one year after her wedding. When doctors suggested that she might only have six months to live, she and her family moved from California to Oregon in order to obtain the prescriptions necessary for doctor-assisted euthanasia. She is devoting her last days to fundraising and lobbying for an organization dedicated to expanding the legality of assisted suicide to other States.

Brittany’s story really hit home, as I was diagnosed with a very similar incurable brain cancer in 2008 at the age of twenty-four. After years of terrible headaches and misdiagnosis, my Grade III brain cancer (Anaplastic Astrocytoma) proved to be inoperable due to its location. Most studies state that the median survival time for this type of cancer is eighteen months, even with aggressive radiation and chemotherapy. I was beginning an exciting career as a naval officer with my entire life ahead of me. I had so many hopes and dreams, and in an instant they all seemed to be crushed. As Brittany said in her online video, “being told you have that kind of timeline still feels like you’re going to die tomorrow.”

I was diagnosed during my second Navy deployment to the Northern Arabian Gulf. After many seizures, the ship’s doctor sent me to the naval hospital on the Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain, where my brain tumor was discovered. I remember the moment I saw the computer images of the brain scans – I went to the Catholic chapel on base and fell to the floor in tears. I asked God, “why me?” The next day, I flew home to the United States to begin urgent treatment. A few months after radiation and chemotherapy, I was discharged from the Navy and began formation for the Roman Catholic priesthood, a vocation to which I have felt called since I was nineteen years old. Despite all of the hardships and delays in my training and formation over the past six years, I hope to be ordained to the transitional diaconate this Spring and to the priesthood one year later.

I have lived through six years of constant turmoil, seizures, and headaches. I often changed hospitals and doctors every few months, seeking some morsel of hope for survival. Like Brittany, I do not want to die, nor do I want to suffer the likely outcome of this disease. I do not think anyone wants to die in this way. Brittany states relief that she does not have to die the way that it has been explained that she would – she can die “on her own terms.” I have also consulted with my doctors to learn how my illness is likely to proceed. I will gradually lose control of my bodily functions at a young age, from paralysis to incontinence, and it is very likely that my mental faculties will also disappear and lead to confusion and hallucinations before my death. This terrifies me, but it does not make me any less of a person. My life means something to me, to God, and to my family and friends, and barring a miraculous recovery, it will continue to mean something long after I am paralyzed in a hospice bed. My family and friends love me for who I am, not just for the personality traits that will slowly slip away if this tumor progresses and takes my life.

Obviously, I have lived much longer than originally expected, and I attribute this to the support and prayers of others who have helped me to keep a positive outlook. I will never claim that I have dealt with my illness heroically or with great courage, no matter what others might observe or believe from my reserved disposition. I am shy and introverted, so I have not let many people become aware of the depth of my suffering. There have been times over the past six years that I wanted the cancer to grow and take my life swiftly so that it would all be over. Other times, I have sought forms of escape through sin and denial just to take my mind off of the suffering and sadness, even if only for a few moments. However, deep in my heart I know that this approach is futile. My illness has become a part of me, and while it does not define me as a person, it has shaped who I am and who I will become.

In Brittany’s video, her mother mentions that her immediate hope was for a miracle. My response to my diagnosis was the same – I hoped for a miraculous recovery so that I would not have to deal with the suffering and pain that was likely to come. However, I now realize that a “miracle” does not necessarily mean an instant cure. If it did, would we not die from something else later in our lives? Is there any reason that we deserve fifteen, twenty, or thirty or more years of life? Every day of life is a gift, and gifts can be taken away in an instant. Anyone who suffers from a terminal illness or has lost someone close to them knows this very well.

I have outlived my dismal prognosis, which I believe to be a miracle, but more importantly, I have experienced countless miracles in places where I never expected to find them. Throughout my preparation for the priesthood I have been able to empathize with the sick and suffering in hospitals and nursing homes. I have traveled to Lourdes, France, the site of a Marian apparition and a place of physical and spiritual healing that is visited by millions of pilgrims each year. I have had the great opportunity to serve the infirm there who trust in God with their whole hearts to make sense of their suffering. Through my interaction with these people, I received much more than I gave. I learned that the suffering and heartache that is part of the human condition does not have to be wasted and cut short out of fear or seeking control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation. Perhaps this is the most important miracle that God intends for me to experience.

Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take. As humans we are relational – we relate to one another and the actions of one person affects others. Sadly, the concept of “redemptive suffering” – that human suffering united to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross for our salvation can benefit others – has often been ignored or lost in modern times. It is perfectly understandable that medication should be made available to give comfort and limit suffering as much as possible during the dying process, especially during a terminal illness, but it is impossible to avoid suffering altogether. We do not seek pain for its own sake, but our suffering can have great meaning if we try to join it to the Passion of Christ and offer it for the conversion or intentions of others. While often terrifying, the suffering and pain that we will all experience in our lives can be turned into something positive. This has been a very difficult task for me, but it is possible to achieve.

There is a card on Brittany’s website asking for signatures “to support her bravery in this very tough time.” I agree that her time is tough, but her decision is anything but brave. I do feel for her and understand her difficult situation, but no diagnosis warrants suicide. A diagnosis of terminal cancer uproots one’s whole life, and the decision to pursue physician-assisted suicide seeks to grasp at an ounce of control in the midst of turmoil. It is an understandable temptation to take this course of action, but that is all that it is – a temptation to avoid an important reality of life. By dying on one’s “own terms,” death seems more comfortable in our culture that is sanitized and tends to avoid any mention of the suffering and death that will eventually come to us all.

Brittany comments, “I hope to pass in peace. The reason to consider life and what’s of value is to make sure you’re not missing out, seize the day, what’s important to you, what do you care about – what matters – pursue that, forget the rest.” Sadly, Brittany will be missing out on the most intimate moments of her life – her loved ones comforting her through her suffering, her last and most personal moments with her family, and the great mystery of death – in exchange for a quicker and more “painless” option that focuses more on herself than anyone else. In our culture, which seeks to avoid pain at any cost, it is not difficult to understand why this response is so common among those who suffer.

I have experienced so much sadness due to my illness, but there have also been times of great joy. The support I have received from others encourages me to keep pushing on. I want to be a priest, I want to see my three young nephews grow up, and these goals give me the hope to wake up each day and live my life with trust.

I will continue to pray for Brittany as she deals with her illness, as I know exactly what she is going through. I still get sad. I still cry. I still beg God to show me His will through all of this suffering and to allow me to be His priest if it be His will, but I know that I am not alone in my suffering. I have my family, my friends, and the support of the entire universal Church. I have walked in Brittany’s shoes, but I have never had to walk alone. Such is the beauty of the Church, our families, and the prayerful support that we give to one another.

May Brittany come to understand the love that we all have for her before she takes her own life, and that if she chooses instead to fight this disease, her life and witness would be an incredible example and inspiration to countless others in her situation. She would certainly be an inspiration to me as I continue my own fight against cancer.

Philip Johnson is a seminarian with the diocese of Raleigh.

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14 comments on “Seminarian Phillip, Terminal Brain Cancer, Response to Brittany Maynard

  1. I know many here are praying for Phillip and since it was so nice seeing news of him I thought others here might welcome the story as well.

  2. It’s good to hear Philip is still alive and working his way through the seminary. I hadn’t heard anything from him in years, but have continued to pray for him in my prayers for priests, so this is welcome news.

    His comments to Brittany will hopefully be taken to heart by her and others in similar situations.

  3. I would like to let both Seminarian Phillip Johnson and Brittany Maynard know that
    Dr. Burzynski in Houston, Texas has developed an i.v. treatment for the most serious
    types of brain cancer that has produced cures in some cases. The drug does not effect normal cells at all, so there is no hair loss, sickness, of damage to any non-cancerous tissues. The drug is now FDA approved and some insurances cover the treatments.
    Testimonies by physicians and cured brain cancer patients can be found on the you tube. Dr. Burzynski accepts only patients already diagnosed with cancer by reputable physicians and hospitals.

  4. Brittany should also understand that when she takes her own life that she will burn in eternal Hell, forever and ever.

    • It is true. Why would he omit Hell in an otherwise fine letter? Moderns profess Origenism (von Balthasar), that Hell is just longer Purgatory. Or that only Hitler, and maybe Stalin went there. Teaching Hell seems harsh, but it is salvific.

      One way to end abortion would be for the bishops to teach that the souls of the aborted are lost forever. Even most so-called pro-life folks do not profess the truth on this, and get very upset when you bring it up.

      • Yes, the ultimate tragedy is that through suicide the girl condemns herself to hell.

        But the problem is actually composed of a couple problems.

        1. The girl has no apparent faith. She is in the DARK. She does not understand the LIGHT.

        2. Conversions take time, you need to get the person to step off the ledge so you can work on conversion. This is an especially difficult element in for instance work at abortion mills. The group I’m blessed to work with has as its PRIMARY objective the salvation of souls because indeed EVERYTHING flows from that, but you must gently get them off that ledge first.

        Basically there are interim tasks on the way to the goal.

        Given the first task has to be to get her to step off the ledge, I believe Phillip has done a outstanding job in this article. God willing, he’s going to make a fine traditional priest. And perhaps, given the road he’s on a saint.

        • At the mill, when you only get a few sentences, Hell may not be the place to start. Then again, depending on the person, it might be exactly the place to start.

          The seminarian wrote 1700 words to someone who is publicly crying out for help, but he didn’t bring up her eternal disposition. There are lots of ways to bring it up, such as, “throw away your life, and you throw away your eternal life.” He mentions our Lord only once, and Our Lady not at all. This is his only chance to convert the poor girl. I pray she gets the message before it’s too late.

          • Your approach on broaching the subject of damnation is certainly a good one.

            And I share your prayer that the girl is saved before it’s too late.

            And I’d also bet, based upon everything I’ve seen of Phillip for years now, that he would accept your concerns with humility.

            The problem is this woman is ENTIRELY in the DARK.

            This woman is MILITANTLY NON-Christian. She is doing EVERYTHING in her power to advance the acceptance of and legalization of suicide

            And she is being extremely successful at her effort.

            ALL of her consciencely acknowledged cries for help are cries to further her desire to PROMOTE SOCIETY’S FULL ACCEPTANCE OF SUICIDE. Getting at her conscience (which, yes, in all of us has been shaped for heaven, not hell, and therefore is crying for help) requires digging through that mess. Digging through that mess has HIGH odds in triggering overt hostility and the throwing up of walls. Which if time were no concern could be dealt with. But she is on the ledge.

            And while it was (and still should be) the standard sound practice to counsel priests to be stern at the pulpit and regularly foster a focus on the last four things among the FAITHFUL and then be gentle in the confessional (the difference in handling the two is significant as well) — that was (is) the sound approach to handling the FAITHFUL.

            But this woman has NO faith.

            She is entirely incapable of comprehending the light.

            IF she has any personal opinion (not belief, but opinion) about an after life, rather than outright COMPLETE denial (which is very likely), it certainly is some incoherent combination of neo-pagan concepts like reincarnation and universal salvation.

            Again if one scratches the surface with someone where she is spiritually one will find a great deal of outright hostility there eager for a target.

            Now granted, there are times when it is the prudent thing to plant a burr rather than a mustard seed in a soul, but generally that will not produce any immediate results — and in this case immediate results are critical.

            Christ saved Magdalene first. THEN He told her to sin no more — after His perfect conduct and saving her from physical harm had softened and OPENED her heart to listen.

            I believe Phillip reached out to provide her comfort in a way that bared his humanity to her in a way SHE could understand even in her darkness and that provides an excellent example of Christian humility and charity.

            But again, I’m sure he would welcome the criticism expressed by you and others here with a humble spirit.

            • But this woman has NO faith.

              And that is precisely the problem.

              She is entirely incapable of comprehending the light.

              You know that’s not true.

              I don’t think there’s a comparison with the woman in adultery because she came to Christ in contrition in the first place.

              As for planting a burr, I don’t think that’s the point. Our Lord called it a sword, and every doctrine has that edge to it. But it’s also written “a bent reed he would not break.” There is no need to condemn this woman, as she is doing that to herself every day. There’s nothing to be gained by fire and brimstone, but that’s not what I’m advocating. She desperately needs Jesus and Mary, their consolation and eternal friendship. She must know the prize, the pearl, the ultimate motivation to embrace her suffering and reject her death march.

  5. Back when I was in school, we had a good and orthodox Nun (yes, the good ole days when Nuns looked and acted like Nuns) who used to always say; “The best way to get souls to Heaven is to talk about Hell”. She was right. Modernist bishops, and their ignorant and uncatechised listeners will sadly find out the hard way that there is a place called Hell, whether they believe there is or not.

  6. Brittany Maynard just murdered herself. How terribly sad. God have mercy.

  7. Theo Boer told England over the summer to not legalize assisted suicide in Britain. He used to support it, but he has seen the deaths rates double in The Netherlands since it was legalized there. He warned the MPs that they’d not get the genie back in the bottle if they let it out.

    I’ve linked to this article because the one I originally saw the interview in was The Daily Mail from July 9, but it has lots of scandalous stuff around the article.

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