When Hanna Wilt was 22, she was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare cancer usually linked to asbestos exposure. Doctors gave her six months to live.
Her young life became consumed with horrific symptoms and brutal cancer treatments. This cancer fills the abdomen, starving the patient. But she lived several years beyond her prognosis.
In that extra time, Wilt wrote pages and pages of poetry that was recently published as a book. Her peers selected her to share her testimony of living with a terminal diagnosis at a chapel service at Covenant College, where she was a senior at the time.
“You read through Scripture, and all of a sudden you’re confronted with all this pain and suffering and questioning. The answer we’re met with is a God that saves us by dying for us,” she told the student body in 2019. “I don’t think we can begin to comprehend God’s love and grace until we allow ourselves to confront the difficult questions like pain and suffering. If we constantly keep pulling our bedsheets over our head, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to experience God showing up in the ways he promises to.”
With that extra time, she also filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson.
Wilt was one of thousands of people who have alleged that the talc-based baby powder, which scientists discovered was sometimes laced with asbestos, caused aggressive cancer. Asbestos is often found in the same mining locations as talc.
Johnson & Johnson is now working on getting a court to approve an $8.9 billion settlement for the lawsuits, in a saga that also has the company appealing to the US Supreme Court. But the outcome of the thousands of cases, including Wilt’s, is still uncertain.
Wilt was an athlete and had used Johnson & Johnson baby powder daily for much of her young life, including when she was a baby. She rode horses and ran track. She did not smoke. But she contracted a disease that typically affects older men with a lifetime of asbestos exposure through construction jobs. Her lawsuit alleged that the company knew of the risks of asbestos in its product but hid it from consumers.
When Wilt was diagnosed in 2017, the company had not acknowledged that there was asbestos in its talc-based baby powder. In 2019, the FDA announced that there was asbestos in a batch of it, and Johnson & Johnson issued a voluntary recall. In 2020, when Wilt filed her lawsuit, Johnson & Johnson pulled all its talc baby powder from US store shelves, citing lower sales. Johnson & Johnson still denies the cancer links to its talc baby powder; it now sells cornstarch-based powder.
Cancer patients involved are divided over whether the proposed settlement from Johnson & Johnson is a good deal. The amount would be split among tens of thousands of litigants and distributed over 25 years. For the Wilt family, the ongoing lawsuit is about “justice for this huge corporation that is playing this game,” said Wilt’s sister, Kate Kiesel, in an interview with CT.
“It was never about her wanting to get [Johnson & Johnson] back,” she said. Kiesel said Wilt was upset that the company was selling a product to be used on babies that it knew could be poisonous. She saw participating in the lawsuit as a matter of speaking for those who could not speak themselves.
Growing up, Wilt was always the one of the six Wilt siblings to challenge adults, her sister remembered. Kiesel recalled telling her during the lawsuit, “God made you this way … you are such a truth-teller and you’re not afraid of anyone.”
Sam Wilt, Hanna Wilt’s brother, said his sister “always felt a strong sense of what she believed in and was quick to jump into confrontation to defend her view or cause.” He noticed her suffering “both sharpened her convictions but also softened her around the edges. She didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the lawsuit.”
Being a plaintiff in a major case against a pharmaceutical company while fighting terminal cancer wasn’t easy. Wilt had to do a deposition with a cross-examination from Johnson & Johnson attorneys while she was at home being taken care of by her mom, Kiesel remembered. Their mom was deposed too.
Wilt managed to graduate from Covenant as her civil case met setbacks in New Jersey.
Johnson & Johnson used a creative legal strategy known as the “Texas two-step.” In 2021, the company created a subsidiary in Texas, transferred all liability over the baby powder claims to that subsidiary, and then had the subsidiary file for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy puts lawsuits against a company on hold.
In filings in Wilt’s case after the company’s bankruptcy maneuver, Johnson & Johnson lawyers noted that the company in the case “ceased to exist” and that “no further action may be taken to prosecute the talc-related claims,” absent a new court order.
Wilt did not see the outcome of her case. For five years she fought the cancer. She had a HIPEC surgery where surgeons removed her uterus, spleen, appendix, greater omentum, one ovary, and part of her large intestines. The doctors then filled her abdominal cavity with a hot chemotherapy bath for 90 minutes before sewing her back up. The recovery from that surgery alone was hellish. She said at the time that she had never experienced such pain.
When the cancer returned again, she had to repeat the HIPEC surgery. Surgeons opened her up, but the cancer was so embedded in her tissue that they couldn’t do anything. After that surgery, Kiesel remembered that their mom went to tell Wilt the news in her hospital room. She said, “God’s going to take care of me. It’s okay.”
Wilt died last February, at age 27. Her mother, Hope Wilt, decided to carry on her lawsuit.
“Hanna wanted to do it and I also believe these powerful companies should be held accountable for the damage they do,” Hope Wilt said in an email.
Since Hanna Wilt’s death, an appeals court ruled against Johnson & Johnson’s bankruptcy tactic. In March, the company said it would appeal to the Supreme Court. Johnson & Johnson has stated that the bankruptcy is meant to “efficiently resolve the cosmetic talc litigation for the benefit of all parties.”
As her family awaits the outcome of her case, Wilt has other legacies.
“Nothing has taught me more about God’s tenderness and willingness to redeem all things through his Son than losing Hanna has, even as it’s put the literal fear of God in me for his wildness and uncontrollability,” said Sam Wilt.
A few months before she died, Hanna Wilt and Kiesel began putting together a book of her poetry, interwoven with reflections from her senior testimony at Covenant. Kiesel recalled that as her sister deteriorated, vomiting and in pain in the middle of the night, she would write poems. She would text them to Kiesel in the morning.
A year after Wilt’s death, Kiesel published the book, titled I Would Live for You.
“There’s not many resources of, ‘Your suffering is not going to go away. And God is still good, and he is with you,’” Kiesel said. “No one really wants to hear that, almost especially when they’re a believer, I feel, because you expect to be healed.”
Kiesel, who witnessed so much of her sister’s sickness, said that she thinks people think of eternal life as “what you can fall back on” rather than something that informs how you live every day.
Theologian Kelly Kapic endorsed Wilt’s book. He had her as a student at Covenant, and they talked regularly about suffering as she went through her treatments. Kapic’s wife had had cancer and chronic pain, which he wrote about in one of his books, Embodied Hope.
When Wilt was back in New Jersey for treatment, she would send him long emails and texts about her suffering and thoughts about God. He mostly just listened, told her he was praying for her, and “helped me feel not alone,” she said in her 2019 testimony.
Thinking back on their correspondence, Kapic told CT that “God was not a theory or a nice answer, but he was her comfort.”
One day Kapic texted her and did not hear back. Her sister responded that Wilt had died. Kapic remembered bawling in his office.
“It was one of the most painful texts I have ever received,” he said. “She was so very young. It had been such a hard pilgrimage for her.”
One of the last poems in her posthumous book is titled “What I Mean When I Say That I’m Happy.” Wilt wrote, “I have to have more time / I want more time / I am ready for more. / I think God has been talking to me all along.”