Friday, 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens

The death of a man from oesophageal cancer inevitably brings the response - "well, he drank and smoked". It's the first thought on hearing of someone with lung cancer - "smoker"?

Well the stats keep coming out. Exercise and your chance of breast cancer will be lowered. Eat meat and you increase your chances of bowel cancer. "Nearly half of all cancers are caused by lifestyle", we're told. That "nearly half" - is actually about 42%. To turn it round - 60%, that's nearly two-thirds - of cancers are just plain bad luck.

Cancer is an insidious disease. Every year scientists make small advances in its treatment, but it's still there, still taking more lives. And as we live longer and become more susceptible to those diseases of later life, it will continue to out-race the treatments for a while to come.

In interviews after his diagnosis, Hitchens came across as resigned to his fate, yet philosophical. Regretting the shortening of his life, but not fearing death itself. Some with cancer can be scared, others philosophical, others practical. Some fight like mad, others give up. Some can manage all of the above in turn. Many, many, of course, are healed - while many live with the disease for years. Some need support, some need peace and quiet.

What none of them need is some smug get deciding that it's their fault. If you hear someone is injured or killed in an accident, you don't respond "driver, I suppose?" The cause may matter, in advance. It doesn't in retrospect. It doesn't make the disease less of a tragedy, it doesn't make Hitchens' family grieve less, it didn't - on a universal scale - make his death any more likely. We all die. Let's not add blame to it.


  1. Hear, hear! I've had breast cancer twice and having it implied it must somehow be my own fault doesn't help. Sigh....

  2. Ah, what people will say in order to hide from their own fears. If other people cause their own cancer by their "lifestyle choices," then we can rest assured that we won't get it ourselves. We won't choose to smoke or drink to excess or work in an asbestos-filled building or to live in poverty without access to medical care or to be born into a family in which many of the women had breast cancer or the men colon cancer.

  3. Thanks Penny. A kind of reverse "won't happen to me" theory then?

  4. Catriona and Perpetua, thanks for your comments.

  5. Hitch was one of my intellectual hero's I will miss him greatly. I have been saddened by some Christian commentators over the past few days, not by their vitriol or smugness (Hitch was an outspoken atheist as well as a "bon viveur"), one gets used to that, but by their sheer failure of imagination, they unwittingly conform to every stagnated stereotype he ever railed against.

    Refreshingly though I find these are wise words AE, whatever shape our theological or social choices take we should all agree on one thing, cancer sucks!


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