Editor’s note: This article pairs with “Nontraditional degrees awarded at BYU’s commencement”
Jennifer Hanks donned a long, blue gown and a cap with a yellow tassel during the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences convocation ceremony on April 26. When neuroscience program director Mona Hopkins handed her a diploma, the crowd erupted into applause.
But unlike the thousands of other students who received their diplomas in the Marriott Center that day, Jennifer did not receive her own degree — she received a posthumous degree in behalf of her late husband, Justin Harvard Hanks, who died in July of 2018.
Ben Ogle, the college’s dean, introduced Justin’s degree in neuroscience before the remainder of the college’s students crossed the stage to receive their diplomas.
“For five years, Justin was determined to finish his degree despite several surgeries, setbacks and different chemotherapy and radiation treatments,” Ogle said during the ceremony. “Justin is a tremendous example of faithfulness in trial, perseverance and Christlike love.”
Cody Meredith, a good friend of Justin’s, was key in helping Justin receive his posthumous degree. He was sitting in his office one day when the idea of a posthumous degree occurred to him and he started the process for Justin to receive one.
“(Cancer) never stopped him. If anything, it almost motivated him more to get things done,” Meredith said. “He would spend so much time studying and making sure that he was up to speed on all of his classes, and he got all of his homework done, all of his assignments turned in.”
Jennifer remembers her husband in the same way. She said the diploma is much more than a just a diploma to her — it’s a symbol of how hard Justin worked during the years he battled cancer and juggled family, school, work and chemo treatments.
“He could have easily used cancer as an excuse to take a break from school and everyone would have understood, obviously, but he didn’t,” Jennifer said. “I think that diploma shows how hard he worked and what a great example that he showed my kids. … They’ll be able to look up to him in that way — no matter how hard something is, you don’t just give up. You can keep fighting and moving forward.”
The Hanks’ twin sons, Everett and Marshal, can learn from both of their parents when it comes to perseverance and moving forward in the face of trials. Justin died when the twins were just three months old, leaving Jennifer to raise them as a single mom and young widow. Despite the difficulties of life without Justin, Jennifer has found hope and purpose through her family.
“I feel like if I didn’t have them, I don’t know how I would be able to survive,” Jennifer said about her sons. “They just like help me keep moving forward and they help me stay in those daily routines.”
Jennifer and Justin met in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they both grew up. They attended BYU-Idaho together for one semester and became best friends before Justin transferred to BYU. They eventually married in May 2013 after both served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Two months after the wedding, Justin started to complain about persistent chest pain. He was a strong 24-year-old, Jennifer said, so the couple just assumed he had lifted weights too hard. However, when Justin went in for an X-ray, doctors found a tumor in his chest that was the result of testicular cancer. Within three days, the newlyweds moved back to Colorado to start chemotherapy treatments close to family.
“He did treatments for hormones and had a big surgery at the end to get the tumor removed,” Jennifer said. “Once the tumor was removed, he was cancer free. … It was amazing. We were obviously super excited, and then he was in remission for less than a year before they found something on a routine scan.”
In one of the routine scans Justin attended every three months, doctors found a new cancer in Justin’s chest. According to Jennifer, doctors were unsure about what kind of cancer it was and couldn’t give it a name.
“Surgeries and treatments were just kind of like a guessing game, so we’d try a chemo and it would work for only so long before his body wasn’t allowed to take it anymore,” Jennifer said. “Then we’d have to try a different option.”
Eventually, doctors found a chemotherapy treatment that stabilized Justin for a few years. The treatment didn’t shrink his tumor, but it prevented it from growing, giving the Hankses a somewhat normal life and allowing Justin to continue with work and school.
“Sometimes we’d forget about it and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, you have chemo on Friday,’” Jennifer said. “It was just hard because every once in a while we’d get sucked back into the world of cancer, but it got manageable, and we felt like we didn’t want cancer to hold us back from living our lives. It had already taken so much from us.”
In this period of time, the Hankses decided it was time to grow their family. Because of Justin’s chemotherapy, Jennifer could only become pregnant through in vitro fertilization, an expensive fertility treatment.
“The future was so unsure, but we didn’t want any regrets,” Jennifer said about the couple’s decision to have children. “I think we would have regretted that, and we just wanted to live life. We didn’t want cancer to control us.”
Doctors transferred one embryo to Jennifer’s uterus in August 2017. To the Hanks’ surprise, their first ultrasound revealed two beating hearts. The single embryo split, resulting in identical twins.
According to the Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago, the chances of a single embryo splitting in the IVF process is about 2%.
“We definitely felt like we were meant to have twins, and I obviously was freaking out,” Jennifer said. “But my husband was just so calm and super excited, and he kind of was like my rock. … It slowly turned into just excitement and we were super excited.”
Justin’s health took a turn for the worse when Jennifer was about seven months pregnant. He was admitted to the hospital with a persistent fever caused by his cancer. Jennifer recalls being in an extremely dark place when Justin got sick again, wondering if she would be a single mom and how she could possibly have the energy to give birth without her husband by her side
“We were there for one week and then two weeks, and it just wasn’t looking good,” Jennifer said. “It got to the point that our prayers started to turn to, ‘Let him at least get out of the hospital so that he can see these babies born.’”
Jennifer said their prayers were answered — Justin came home from the hospital a month before the twins’ due date. In that time, he built his strength enough to be present during the delivery. Jennifer said it was a miracle Justin attended the twins’ birth and just what she needed to give her renewed strength and hope.
“The babies were born and I was so excited,” Jennifer said. “I felt like everything had shifted. I was excited and I knew that I could do this, and I knew that if something were to happen if he did pass, that I knew that they would keep me going.”
Justin, Jennifer, Everett and Marshal spent about three months together as a family before Justin died on July 7, 2018. Since then, Jennifer and the babies have adapted to life without Justin, which Jennifer chronicles in her blog, Coco’s Caravan. Jennifer tries to incorporate Justin’s memory into her children’s daily lives by recalling happy memories and what Justin loved during his life.
“I think sometimes it can be hard to talk about him, but it can also be good, and it’s just the way that you do it,” Jennifer said. “We’re not talking in depth about him being sick or those last days that he was here. No, we’re talking about happy things that he loved when he was here and I feel like that is such a good way to incorporate him.”
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New Blog Post! I put more pictures up on the blog and included all my secrets on how I put this adorable photoshoot together! You can click on the link in BIO to see it! . . I started getting in the pictures towards the end of these monthly themed photoshoots. It’s fun to be in them and it will be fun to look back on! I think moms need to be in more pictures! ?
When Jennifer remembers her husband, she remembers his positivity and perseverance despite his cancer.
“It’s so miserable and you’re in so much pain, and I’m sure there were many times that he just wanted to give up,” Jennifer said. “But I never ever saw that from him. … He never complained and never gave up and literally fought to the last second.”