Justin Hanks, 29, died just three months after living to see the birth of his twin sons
Jennifer and Justin Hanks had only been married for two months when they got the news that would change their lives forever.
Justin was diagnosed with testicular cancer in August 2013 –– not long after he and Jennifer said their “I dos” in front of friends and family. Soon after the diagnosis, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor.
“We were devastated. He was depressed for a while. Cancer had taken so much from us. Our newlywed life, our marriage,” Jennifer, 30, tells PEOPLE.
“We never gave up hope and never wanted cancer to stop us from living as normal as possible. We would have our bad days and cry and then pick up our heads and keep moving forward the next.”
Determined to lead normal lives, Jennifer and Justin planned to start a family –– continuing with their dream even after Justin’s brief remission in 2014 came to an end.
“We didn’t want cancer to hold us back anymore, because that’s what it was doing. We wanted to choose that he would get better,” Jennifer says. “If he was cured of cancer five years from now and we never decided to have a family and it was too late we’d have regrets. We didn’t want [cancer] to control our decision to have kids. It’s what we both wanted.”
So, the couple turned to in vitro fertilization (IVF) and, in September 2017, learned that they’d be parents to twin boys.
“He was so happy to be a dad,” Jennifer recalls of Justin. “The second we found out we were having twins he was stoked. Then when we found out we were having boys he was just so excited. We were so happy.”
During the pregnancy, Justin’s health seemed to improve. He had endured at least three surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy since being diagnosed, but Jennifer says Justin managed to care for her as they prepared to welcome the boys.
“He was going to work and school and he would do chemo,” she tells PEOPLE. “On mornings he wasn’t feeling so well, he’d still get up and make me breakfast. He was awesome.”
However, Justin’s health took a turn for the worse when Jennifer was seven months pregnant. Doctors didn’t think he would live to see the boys’ births.
“It was really hard. We wanted him to live. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he actually might die,’ ” Jennifer, who has shared her family’s journey on Instagram recalls. “That was the first time it really registered. We were in a really hard place, I hadn’t met my babies yet and it was really hard to imagine me being a single mom.”
Still, Justin managed to hold on and was in the room with Jennifer when she gave birth to their sons, Everett and Marshal Hanks, on April 10, 2018. Jennifer says that as she delivered the babies, she could hear Justin’s faint voice nearby, “Come on, Jenn, you can do this!”
The mom of two says she’ll always cherish seeing Justin hold their sons for the first time.
“It was amazing. I felt like I was witnessing a miracle,” she says. “I knew how badly he wanted to be here, so for him to get a chance to see and have that moment with his boys was everything. Now I can say he had that moment. I think that is gonna help me move forward.”
Over the next few months, the family of four cherished their time together. All seemed well, until Justin died suddenly in his sleep on July 7.
“It was a shock, even though he had cancer and he looked sick, we wanted him to live so badly and thought he would. It was hard and very traumatic,” she explains. “It was unexpected but I think a part of me was happy he wasn’t in pain anymore.”
Jennifer says she’s grateful for their two boys who serve as a constant reminder of the doting dad.
“I’m so glad we made that decision because now I have these boys that keep me living, keep me going, keep me moving forward in life,” she says. “I’m so excited to tell them our story.”