When I first heard that Christopher Hitchens has cancer, I was a bit saddened. It meant that there was a higher probability that an author who I admire might write fewer words for me to enjoy. The news was a bit closer to home for me than some others because I had been diagnosed with cancer just a month or so earlier.
To say that Christopher Hitchens and I both have cancer is somewhat misleading. If you have influenza, both you and someone with HIV are infected with a virus. It’s a true statement, but doesn’t really convey a lot of meaning. I have Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, even in its later stages, has a very high survival rate (90% or better in most cases). Christopher Hitchens has Esophageal cancer. The overall five-year survival rate for persons diagnosed with this type of cancer is less than 5%. That’s why I consider the comparison a bit misleading.
I don’t mean to make it sound as though I’ve written Hitch off with a death sentence. He’s getting treatment for his cancer, and he’s a strong-willed man. At the same time, I don’t mean to belittle my own situation. I’ve got a potentially life-threatening disease, but I’m making the best of it.
The first real glimpse into what it’s been like for Christopher Hitchens came in the form of Topic of Cancer, a column at Vanity Fair. I found a great deal of the column to be extremely familiar.
I didn’t have the time available to match Hitch’s “very short-lived campaign of denial.” A swollen lymph node was removed from near my right armpit on Monday, 17 May 2010. The results of the biopsy indicated Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Those results were revealed on Wednesday, 19 May 2010. My first chemotherapy session was on Thursday, 20 May 2010. I guess you could say they put me on the fast track.
Hitch’s description of this “new land” is eerily familiar. There are new words to learn, and I’m familiar with Ondansetron. I know about Aprepitant and Dexamethasone now. My veins have become acquainted with Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine, and Dacarbazine; the constituents of the ABVD chemotherapy regimen.
I’m rather fortunate (and atypical) in that the cuisine in the new land is very much to my liking, and not at all unlike everything I had eaten previously. I’ve gained about thirty pounds in the past three months. Hitch hasn’t been so lucky.
The parts of Hitch’s column that hit closest to home for me are these:
To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case.
I have honestly never wondered “Why me?”. What would be the point? Things like this most often don’t have a reason. I see no reason underlying our Universe in the first place. There were several moments while I lay in a hospital bed wondering why I wasn’t feeling the denial, the anger, the fear, etc. I have cancer. Why am I not reacting the way that I have seen other people react to that same word?
In Hitch’s recent interview with Anderson Cooper, the subject of such a reaction, or lack thereof, was raised.
COOPER: It’s interesting hearing you talk about it. It’s — I mean, obviously, you are an intellectual, and you seem to be dealing with it in an intellectual way. Does that — does that make sense? You seem to be looking at this, trying to look at this as rationally as possible. What about the emotional side?
HITCHENS: Well, let’s say as objectively as possible.
HITCHENS: Yes. And to my slight surprise — because I’m not by any means tear proof, I haven’t wept at any point yet. Maybe that’s to come. But I’ve become moist when I think about my children, for whom it’s a nasty shock.
I admit that I did choke back tears when my own daughters visited me while I was in the hospital. The one thing that Hitch and I have in common besides cancer is that we are both atheists. The words rationally and objectively jump out at me. Is this how atheists react to the diagnosis of what may be a terminal illness? Do Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages apply to those of us who have no religious faith? I’m not so sure that they apply to most people in the first place.
Hitch is right: It isn’t a “battle”. Four days from now I will once again sit idly while the chemotherapy drugs are pushed into my veins. I don’t feel powerless, however. I feel healthier right now than I did during the months leading up to my hospitalization. Yeah; I’ve got cancer, but I’m getting better.