How Esophageal Cancer Caused the Death of Christopher Hitchens

This form of cancer often ends fatally for victims

Christopher Hitchens
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Esophageal cancer caused the death of author Christopher Hitchens. This form of cancer often ends fatally. A self-admitted former heavy smoker and drinker, Hitchens received an esophageal cancer diagnosis in the summer of 2010, when he was 61 years old. His health crisis forced him to cancel a book tour for his memoir, "Hitch 22." 

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 losing the hair on his face surprised him. He was prepared to lose the hair on his head as a result of chemo, but losing his facial hair caught him off guard. Hitchens' account of his experience with chemotherapy was raw, honest and emotional. In the piece, he summarized the side effects of chemotherapy, which thousands of esophageal cancer patients endure every single day. Hitchens' words, however, broadcast to the world what such patients must face. 

Could Hitchens’ Cancer Have Been Prevented?

We can almost never say whether one particular factor 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 one's 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 is certainly a possibility that he suffered from acid reflux, as many heavy smokers do.

Is Esophageal Cancer Genetic?

Hitchens’ father also died of esophageal cancer, an ironic twist on his diagnosis that led the public to wonder if this form of 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 begun smoking or drinking or quit years before his diagnosis, 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. Moreover, the speculation can lead to victim-blaming and finger-pointing, which especially isn't helpful when it's too late to turn back the clock.

The Death of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens died on Dec. 15, 2011, at age 62.  Fewer than two years had passed since his diagnosis. Memorializing Hitchens, Vanity Fair described him as an "incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant."

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