Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on talking to people with cancer

You may already know that atheist thinker, debater, writer, and commentator Christopher Hitchens is currently in what may be a losing battle with throat cancer. In this Vanity Fair article, Hitchens talks about how to approach a cancer patient, and what goes through a patient's mind as they interact with friends, strangers, and loved ones. While I haven't had to deal with my own cancer yet (and let's hope it stays that way), I did have to deal with people's awkwardness while my mother was dying, and sometimes found myself in the weird position of reassuring the ones who had hoped to reassure me and our family. Hitchens is right that the disease makes for a conversational minefield, and that it's easy to resent people for the lack of tact that often seems awkwardly wedded to their good intentions.

A choice passage:

But it’s not really possible to adopt a stance of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” either. Like its original, this is a prescription for hypocrisy and double standards. Friends and relatives, obviously, don’t really have the option of not making kind inquiries. One way of trying to put them at their ease is to be as candid as possible and not to adopt any sort of euphemism or denial. So I get straight to the point and say what the odds are. The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five. Quite rightly, some people take me up on it. I recently had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to attend my niece’s wedding, in my old hometown and former university in Oxford. This depressed me for more than one reason, and an especially close friend inquired, “Is it that you’re afraid you’ll never see England again?” As it happens he was exactly right to ask, and it had been precisely that which had been bothering me, but I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness. I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it, too. And yet I had absolutely invited the question. Telling someone else, with deliberate realism, that once I’d had a few more scans and treatments I might be told by the doctors that things from now on could be mainly a matter of “management,” I again had the wind knocked out of me when she said, “Yes, I suppose a time comes when you have to consider letting go.” How true, and how crisp a summary of what I had just said myself. But again there was the unreasonable urge to have a kind of monopoly on, or a sort of veto over, what was actually sayable. Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic.

Go read the rest for yourself. You may not agree with how he ends the piece (I know I didn't; the dig against Randy Pausch seemed uncalled-for), but as is true of all of Hitchens's writing, you'll be fascinated by his take on things.



  1. How is it any different from families having to deal with other "hard" problems like questions from friends and family dealing with family members battling mental illness, drug/alcohol abuse, prison, etc.?

    Hell, just being overweight or underweight comes with its own can of worms.

    That "life's a bitch and then you die" bumper sticker makes more and more sense to me with each passing day. More so, now that I'm seeing more of my older male family members succumbing to Alzheimer’s and dementia after leading the perfect example of rugged American individualist lives until they hit retirement age. It really sucks to have worked so long and hard and not be able to enjoy it, and now their wives are also victims of this slow-developing and mind-robbing disease.

  2. An interesting read, that was. I agree that the dig against Pausch seems a bit harsh, but I think the point he was trying to make was valid, especially from his point of view. The question, I suppose, is whether the point would have been made as effectively has it been made in the abstract.

    My own experience is different from yours in significant ways, but seeing how people deal with cancer has proven interesting. The modus operandi here seems to be not to mention the disease at all, but just to ask after the sufferer's well being in general. Replies are equally void of excruciating detail. I wonder how much of this is a cultural thing.



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