If there’s one thing Christopher Hitchens has learned from cancer it’s this – whatever doesn’t kill him doesn’t make him stronger.
Finding a new perspective on life through his illness, having been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, the oustpoken atheist recently explained on Vanity Fair why he no longer found the popular adage to be true.
“Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive sense,” Hitchens penned. “And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span.”
“However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’”
“In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.”
The acclaimed author had been undergoing a variety of treatments for his stage 4 cancer following his diagnosis last year, including an experimental treatment partially developed by evangelical scientist and “good friend” Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, as well as month-long radiation sessions at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, ranked number one in cancer care.
He has yet to find any miracle cure for his sickness, however. Collins previously stated that Hitchens’ condition was “very serious” and that he had a “poor prognosis.”
Throughout the year, the author of “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” suffered from a variety of ailments including staph pneumonia, a temporary loss of voice, muscle atrophy, and radiation-induced rashes across his upper body that made swallowing excruciating.
“It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory,” Hitchens reflected. “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,” he revealed. “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.”
Though Hitchens understood that if he had opted out of the treatments, he would already be dead by now, there was no escaping the fact that he was still “enormously weakened,” and not strengthened, by the treatments.
Not only was his physical body deteriorating, but his personality and identity were slowly dissolving as well, he noted, threatened with the loss of communication whether through his vocal chords or his fingers, both of which were affected by the sickness.
“These are progressive weaknesses that in a more ‘normal’ life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise?” he questioned.
“Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to,” Hitchens shared.
“Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that ‘what didn’t kill me made me stronger.’ This is one of the manifestations that ‘denial’ takes.”
Resolving nonetheless to continue fighting, Hitchens fixated on the word “stronger” more than the entire maxim.
“In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker,” he concluded. “So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline.”
“This is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.”