A young seminarian with incurable brain cancer is praying that 29 year-old Brittany Maynard, who is suffering the same plight and publicly announced plans to take her life with prescription drugs on November 1, is asking her to choose to fight instead so that her life and witness can be an example and inspiration to others.
In an article posted on the website of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, 30 year-old Philip Johnson tells the heartbreaking story of his own dire diagnosis which came during his second Navy deployment to the 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?'”
He was diagnosed with Grade III brain cancer (Anaplastic Astrocytoma) for which the median survival rate – with the most aggressive treatment – is just 18 months.
That was six years ago and he’s still alive and looking forward to being ordained to the transitional diaconate this spring and to the priesthood in 2016.
Every moment of life is worth living, he says, even though he understands the fears Brittany Maynard has about the debilitating death in store for her if the disease is allowed to take its course.
“Like Brittany, I do not want to die, nor do I want to suffer the likely outcome of this disease,” Johnson writes. “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 is terrifying, he admits, “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.”
He can’t help but empathize with Brittany who moved from California to Oregon so she could obtain the a lethal prescription permitted by the state’s Death with Dignity law. She has vowed to devote her last days on earth to fundraising and lobbying for a pro-euthanasia group with the hopes that the “right” to die will be expanded to all 50 states.
“There is a card on Brittany’s website asking for signatures ‘to support her bravery in this very tough time’,” Johnson writes. “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.”
Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take, Johnson says. “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. . . . 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.”
Even though he admits sometimes wishing the disease would “take my life swiftly so that it will all be over”, he also has to admit that his life has been full of miracles since he became ill.
“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.”
Sadly, Brittany Maynard will miss out on all of this because she has chosen to die “on my own terms” rather than those of the merciful God who created her.
“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,” Johnson writes.
“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.”
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