He announced he had esophageal cancer in June of last year and hung on for not quite 18 months, which was long enough for several essays in Vanity Fair on the agony of illness. His latest, and now last, was published in the January issue. An excerpt:
I do remember lying there and looking down at my naked torso, which was covered almost from throat to navel by a vivid red radiation rash. This was the product of a month-long bombardment with protons which had burned away all of the cancer in my clavicular and paratracheal nodes, as well as the original tumor in the esophagus. This put me in a rare class of patients who could claim to have received the highly advanced expertise uniquely available at the stellar Zip Code of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.
It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory. It’s also impossible to warn against. If my proton doctors had tried to tell me up front, they might perhaps have spoken of “grave discomfort” or perhaps of a burning sensation. I only know that nothing at all could have readied or steadied me for this thing that seemed to scorn painkillers and to attack me in my core. I now seem to have run out of radiation options in those spots (35 straight days being considered as much as anyone can take), and while this isn’t in any way good news, it spares me from having to wonder if I would willingly endure the same course of treatment again.
But mercifully, too, I now can’t summon the memory of how I felt during those lacerating days and nights. And I’ve since had some intervals of relative robustness. So as a rational actor, taking the radiation together with the reaction and the recovery, I have to agree that if I had declined the first stage, thus avoiding the second and the third, I would already be dead. And this has no appeal…
I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.
You’ll find the links to his other essays on cancer embedded in VF’s memorial post as well as a photo gallery here. Hitchens being Hitchens, I wonder which he anticipated more eagerly — the end of the pain or finally knowing if he was right about you know what. I suspect he was right. I hope we’re both wrong.
Here he is in September 2010 reacting to “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day.” Farewell, Hitch.
Update: The boss emeritus reminisces about an atheist Christmas.