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Christopher Hitchens Essay Cancer

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Christopher Hitchens' esophageal cancer, in his own words

About losing his voice, he noted that

"To a great degree, in public and private, I “was” my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now, if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening “sympathetically.” At least they don’t have to pay attention for long: I can’t keep it up and anyway can’t stand to.

NIH's Collins, a friend, advised Hitchens on new treatments that might have helped him -- reportedly mapping Hitchens' DNA to help look for targeted therapies -- and wrote about their relationship last year.

To read more of Hitchens' essays about his illness, visit Vanity Fair.

For more information about causes, symptoms and treatment of esophageal cancer, visit the Mayo Clinic or the National Institutes of Health's PubMed.

Return to the Booster Shots blog.

Writer Christopher Hitchens, 62, died Thursday of pneumonia, a complication of the esophageal cancer he battled for more than a year.

Hitchens was best known for his essays about politics and faith.  An atheist, he famously debated religion with practicing Christians, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins. But in the last year of his life he also distinguished himself by writing about his cancer, penning a National Magazine Award-winning series of columns for the magazine Vanity Fair.

Hitchens documented his stay in "Tumorville," as he called it.  He reflected on his emotions upon learning his diagnosis and starting chemotherapy.  About losing his hair, he wrote:

I was fairly reconciled to the loss of my hair, which began to come out in the shower in the first two weeks of treatment, and which I saved in a plastic bag so that it could help fill a floating dam in the Gulf of Mexico. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that my razorblade would suddenly go slipping pointlessly down my face, meeting no stubble. Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.) I feel upsettingly de-natured.

In June, Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Christian Witkin hide caption

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Christian Witkin

In June, Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Christian Witkin

Just over a month ago, we learned that Christopher Hitchens had started to undergo treatment for esophageal cancer.

In the September issue of Vanity Fair, in a piece called "Topic of Cancer," he talks about his illness for the first time.

Because my prose pales in comparison to his, I'll quote Hitch liberally:

"I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death," he begins. "But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse."

The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little. Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning. It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services. They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.

Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist. Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives.

You can read the whole piece here.

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