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Christopher Hitchens and His Battle with Esophageal Cancer

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Updated December 16, 2011

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Author Christopher Hitchens battled esophageal cancer, a disease that often ends fatally. A self-admitted former heavy smoker and drinker, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the summer of 2010. It was an event that forced him to cancel a book tour for his memoir, Hitch 22. He was 61 at the time of his diagnosis.

In a very candid self-written piece for Vanity Fair, Hitchens opened up about undergoing chemotherapy. He talked about how chemo made him lose 14 pounds and how he was surprised not when he lost the hair on his head, but the hair on his face. His account was raw, honest, and written from true emotion. He summarized the side effects of chemotherapy, which thousands of esophageal cancer patients endure every single day.

Could Hitchens’ Cancer Have Been Prevented?

We can almost never say whether something was a definitive cause of a person’s cancer, but we can evaluate a person’s lifestyle to determine if there were factors that perhaps increase the risk of developing cancer. In Hitchens’ case, he was a heavy smoker and drinker – two major risk factors for esophageal cancer.

We also know that having chronic acid reflux and Barrett’s esophagus can increase your risk, but it is unknown if Hitchens suffered from either condition. It could certainly be a possibility that he has suffered from acid reflux, as many heavy smokers do.

Hitchens’ father died of esophageal cancer, an ironic twist on his diagnosis, which has had people wondering if esophageal cancer has a hereditary factor in its development. It is not generally thought that esophageal cancer is genetic, but tylosis, a rare genetic condition that causes the thickening of the palms and soles of the hands and feet, is a major risk factor for developing the disease. It is unknown if tylosis was a factor in Hitchens’ esophageal cancer.

If Hitchens had never began smoking or drinking or quit, it's possible that he may have greatly reduced his risk. Again, however, it can only be speculated upon, as a definitive cause in most cases of cancer cannot be determined.

The Death of Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens died less than two year after his diagnosis in December of 2011 at age 62. In a memorial page, Vanity Fair said of him, "incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant."
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