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Christopher Hitchens Essays On Cancer

Christopher Hitchens writes in the latest issue of Vanity Fair about the cancer of the oesophagus that is afflicting him. He does so, as one might expect of him, with candour, intelligence and wit.

He also reveals in the article, Topic of Cancer, that the disease has spread to his lymph nodes, and that one tumour, located on his right clavicle, is large enough to be seen and felt.

After relating the drama of the June morning when his "chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement", he tells of crossing the stark frontier into "the land of malady." He writes:

The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work.

As against that, the humour is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own — a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult...

The word "metastasised" was the one in the report that first caught my eye, and ear. The alien had colonised a bit of my lung as well as quite a bit of my lymph node. And its original base of operations was located—had been located for quite some time — in my oesophagus.

My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the oesophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a "race" life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.

I'll leave the rest to you to read if you wish. I note that among the online comments, all from well-wishers, is one offering prayers for Hitchens's recovery.

I might well have called that ironic. But I see Hitchens is way ahead of me by observing: "Irony is my business and I just can't see any ironies here."

Mr. Hitchens’s newest book, published last month, is “Arguably,” a paving-stone-sized volume consisting mostly of essays finished since his last big collection, “Love, Poverty and War,” which came out in 2004. The range of subjects is typically Hitchensian. There are essays — miniature pamphlets, almost — on political subjects and especially on the danger posed to the West by Islamic terrorism and totalitarianism, a subject that has preoccupied Mr. Hitchens since 2001. But there are just as many on literary figures; there’s a paean to oral sex, and there are little rants about unruly wine waiters, clichés and the misuse of “fuel” as a verb. The book’s epigraph is from Henry James’s novel “The Ambassadors”: “Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.” And in an introduction Mr. Hitchens writes: “Some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last. Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another, this practice can obviously never become perfected.”

In his hospital room he suggested that an awareness of mortality was useful for a writer but ideally it should remain latent. “I try not to dwell on it,” he said, “except that once in a while I say, O.K., I’m not going to make that joke, I’m not going to go for that chortle. Or if I have to choose between two subjects, I won’t choose the boring one.”

He added, talking about an essay on Philip Larkin that made it into “Arguably”: “I knew the collection was going to come out even if I did not, and I was very pleased when I finished that one, because of the way it ends: ‘Our almost-instinct almost true:/ What will survive of us is love.’ I remember thinking, if that’s the last piece I write, that will do me.” After a moment he went on: “The influence of Larkin is much greater than I thought. He’s perfect for people who are thinking about death. You’ve got that old-line Calvinist pessimism and modern, acid cynicism — a very good combo. He’s not liking what he sees, and not pretending to.”

His main regret at the moment, Mr. Hitchens said, was that while he was keeping up with his many deadlines — for Slate, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair — he didn’t have the energy to also work on a book. He had recently come up with some new ideas about his hero, George Orwell, for example — among them that Orwell might have had Asperger’s — and he said he ought to include them in a revised edition of his 2002 book, “Why Orwell Matters.” He had also thought of writing a book about dying. “It could be called ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting,’ ” he said, laughing.

Turning serious, he said, “I’ve had some dark nights of the soul, of course, but giving in to depression would be a sellout, a defeat.” He added: “I don’t know why I got so sick. Maybe it was the smokes, or maybe it’s genes. My father died of the same thing. It’s pointless getting into remorse.”

On balance, he reflected, the past year has been a pretty good one. He won a National Magazine Award, published “Arguably,” debated Tony Blair in front of a huge audience and added two states to the list of those he has visited. “I lack only the Dakotas and Nebraska,” he said, “though I may not get there unless someone comes up with some ethanol-based cancer treatment in Omaha.”

Mr. Hitchens has an extensive support network that includes his wife, Carol Blue, and his great friends James Fenton and Martin Amis. Mr. Amis is known for being cool and acerbic, but as he kissed and embraced Mr. Hitchens last week, visiting on the way to a literary festival in Mexico, his affection for his friend was unmistakable. “Hitch’s buoyancy is amazing,” he said later. “He has this great love of life, which I rather envy, because I think I may be deficient in that respect. It’s an odd thing to say, but he’s almost like a Tibetan monk. It’s as if he’d become religious.”

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