The land of malady

Christopher Hitchens is an opinionated, witty, often harsh writer who defies political pigeon-holing. Among other things, he is noted for his support of atheism and the Iraq war. He is also now a cancer patient.

In an article for the September 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, Hitchens describes receiving a diagnosis of esophageal cancer that had metastasized to his lymph nodes and lungs. In his writing, he remains completely himself at this stage of the disease, being willing to confront the diagnosis and its likely end result with his own candid, articulate and personal touch. The article encapsulates his approach to life and now, I suppose, to death.

My generation approaches cancer and other potentially fatal diseases differently from my parents’ generation, who rarely used the word. Their discussions of terminal illnesses employed euphemism, lowered voices, and vagueness as to detail. I don’t remember hearing any of the patients themselves talking about their condition. In contrast, we learn everything we can about medical vocabulary, symptoms, and treatments.

My friend Teresa, who died in 1999, was the first of my contemporaries to openly discuss what she was experiencing. She provided summaries that I emailed to a large group of friends: a very personal gift of intimacy and knowledge that opened up the hidden world she had abruptly moved into.

Hitch describes it as another country — his experience of the emergency services taking him to hospital “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.” His description of this country reinforces all my own fear and prejudices about hospitals:

… the humor 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 …

I had thought of chemotherapy-related hair loss as a particularly hard thing for women to deal with, but Hitchens’ description of his own is poignant as well as sharply funny :

… 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. If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice. In the war against Thanatos, if we must term it a war, the immediate loss of Eros is a huge initial sacrifice.

Hitch wants to live to write “the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger” and I hope that his current battle (he comments on the peculiar struggle imagery used uniquely of cancer) allows him to write for a number of years yet.

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