Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on Cancer Etiquette

I've mentioned before that I have long admired Christopher Hitchens, both as a gifted writer/debater and simply as a man. Hitchens has made me think, laugh, and question my beliefs on multiple occasions. He backs down from no man in a debate and, from my distant vantage point, he seems to be a man who practices what he preaches.

Now, having seen the way that Hitchens is handling himself since learning that he suffers from stage 4 esophagus cancer, I admire the man more than ever.  Hitchens was an avowed atheist before he had cancer, and he is an avowed atheist today.  I have always believed the classic saying that "there are no atheists in foxholes" to be a true one, and I figured it would probably be pretty much the same story with deathbeds - that those given half the chance would hedge their bets on the way out the door.  Somehow, though, I don't think God will be hearing from Christopher Hitchens.  Some will say what a terrible mistake Hitchens is making; others, like me, will say bravo, Mr. Hitchens.  You, sir, are an inspiration.

The latest from Hitchens is a December Vanity Fair piece in which he discusses the etiquette of cancer:
It’s normally agreed that the question “How are you?” doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like “A bit early to say.” (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, “I seem to have cancer today.”) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of “life” when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe...
But it’s not really possible to adopt a stance of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” either. Like its original, this is a prescription for hypocrisy and double standards. Friends and relatives, obviously, don’t really have the option of not making kind inquiries. One way of trying to put them at their ease is to be as candid as possible and not to adopt any sort of euphemism or denial. So I get straight to the point and say what the odds are. The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.
What some people, one motherly type in particular, say to Hitchens is hard to read without grinding one's teeth at the sheer stupidity of the human race.

That Hitchens still calls them as he sees them is obvious.  If you don't believe me, take a look at the end of the Vanity Fair article to see what he thinks of the book and video of The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch's farewell to the world.

You are still the man, Mr. Hitchens.


  1. I always liked him and also admire him immensely.

  2. My dad was in the last days of his life with cancer. People would ask how he was and he would say, "I'm dying." Stark, but it also gave his friends permission to talk about it. My mom was next to his hospice bed with her address book open, calling my dad's friends all over the world so they could say goodbye. My dad and his friends reminisced and told stories. A good way to spend one's last days.

  3. I bet I can figure out what Mr. Hitchens thinks about Mr. Pausch without reading the article. I do not consider myself a fan of Mr. Hitchens but I will admit he does not just talk the talk, he walks that walk. And he will probably walk it till his dying day.

    As for atheists in foxholes, I once saw Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the expert on death and dying, speak. She said she had found that people tend to die like they live. There really are not many death-bed conversions one way or another. Mr.Hitchens's case certainly bares this out.

  4. Factotum, I hope I'm that brave when my time comes. i really admire people who handle the end that way and wonder where that strength comes from. I suspect they are the kind of people who come from close families and have close friends outside the family, also.

  5. C.B., that's an interesting study; I would love to read about the findings and I might try to find it on the net some place. I wonder if it's always been that way or if it's only the last generation or so that feels that way. Deathbed conversions seem more likely to me than those of the foxhole type because there's more time for some heavy duty thinking on a deathbed than in a foxhole under fire.

    Hitchens is a tough man; he lived a reckless lifestyle but I so much admire his gumption and spirit that it kills me to see this happening to him.

    You're right about what he thinks about Pausch's approach..."after all he worked for Disney."

  6. I've never read any of his books; only his pieces in magazines like Vanity Fair. I've always enjoyed hearing him speak and his honest and straight forward manner (no B.S.).

  7. I think it was his refusal to accept BS, no matter the source, that first attracted me to his writing.

  8. At the time, she had done much of her research with Vietnam War Veterans as well as with the general population.