‘Blessed by Cancer’ social media evangelist, mother of 4 dies leaving powerful witness

By Zoey Maraist, originally published April 11, 2024, Our Sunday Visitor

(OSV News) — When Jessica Hanna was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant, she fought to find treatment that would heal her and preserve the life of her unborn child. Months later, she had a healthy baby boy and scans showing no sign of cancer. But tragically, her cancer soon returned.

Through the ups and downs of her illness, the Catholic wife and mother of four shared her story with her nearly 50,000 followers on social media using the powerful handle @blessed_by_cancer. She died April 6, leaving behind a legacy of pro-life advocacy and an example of a steadfast trust in God, no matter what.

Jessica Hanna: A legacy of faith and pro-life advocacy

“Jessica had a unique way to make everybody she came across feel loved, cared for, and important,” reads a GoFundMe page created by her husband, Lamar Hanna. “In her last years this genuine love for others spread like wildfire as an online ministry to help save souls. With God’s grace she succeeded beyond what even she could have imagined. Her witness of redemptive suffering has helped thousands around the world strengthen their faith, and will continue to do so after her death.”

Hanna’s Instagram page shows a mix of images — hospital bed selfies contrasted with polished photos of the dark-haired woman with striking eyes alongside her smiling husband and children.

She created reels explaining popular Catholic devotions and how to prepare for death. She recorded live videos updating her followers about her medical condition and leading her online community in prayer. The content tells the story of how the Michigan-based pharmacist grew closer to God as she battled the disease that ultimately took her life.

An inspiring witness

In 2020, Hanna learned she was pregnant with her fourth child. Knowing she was pregnant pushed her to further investigate the lump in her breast that originally was deemed benign. Yet a biopsy later revealed she had cancer.

She quickly started an Instagram page documenting her journey and began researching pregnancy and cancer. Some doctors spoke to her about terminating the pregnancy, although one acknowledged that aborting her child would likely not affect her prognosis.

Thanks to Hanna’s medical background and the resources of the Cancer and Pregnancy Registry, she realized treatment was available that posed little risk to her unborn child.

According to the Cancer and Pregnancy Registry, most physicians rarely see pregnant women with cancer, which makes them more likely to encourage women to have an abortion or to deliver the child prematurely. The registry pools information to help oncologists, obstetricians and patients make informed medical decisions.

Hanna also worked with Hope for Two, a related support network that connects pregnant moms with cancer with women who have had the same type of cancer while pregnant.

A journey of faith and healing

Hanna felt committed to protecting her baby even if it meant forgoing cancer treatment. However, the Catholic Church teaches that while abortion is wrong, a woman facing a life-threatening illness can undergo treatment even if it could end the life of her unborn child. A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document teaches that “in some situations, it may be permissible to perform a medical procedure on a pregnant woman that directly treats a serious health problem but that also has a secondary effect that leads to the death of the developing child.”

After speaking with several doctors, Hanna found a team she was confident would treat her and her unborn child. She prayed the rosary, attended Mass frequently and visited the nearby tomb of Blessed Solanus Casey, a Capuchin priest, in Detroit. After two surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy, Hanna, her husband, and their three children, Christopher, Mary and Joseph, welcomed baby Thomas Solanus. When she could safely be scanned two weeks later, Hanna’s body showed no signs of cancer.

On her Instagram page, Hanna frequently shared that she was grateful for the physical healing, but more grateful for the spiritual transformation God had begun in her.

“We have to stop thinking earthly. We have to always focus on eternity,” she wrote. “Yes, I am blessed by cancer, by suffering, by my cross … because it is how He found me and made me new. There is no greater blessing than that.”

A final surrender to God’s will

In 2022, Hanna’s cancer had returned, spreading all over her body. She posted about donating her hair, praying a novena for impossible requests and asking that her final meal be the Eucharist. In her last video, she talks about St. Joseph’s Day celebrations, her children and her surrender to God’s will.

Father Solanus Casey said thank God ahead of time,” she said. “I used to think (that was) because you’re so confident he’s going to answer your prayers, (but) not necessarily. We thank God ahead of time not because we’re confident he’ll give us what we want, but because we’re confident whatever he does is good.”

Zoey Maraist writes for OSV News from Virginia.

Images & screenshots/Instagram