The journalist and essayist Christopher Hitchens has given a frank, honest and moving interview to BBC Two’s Newsnight about his cancer diagnosis. In a wide-ranging half-hour conversation at his Washington DC home with Jeremy Paxman, he talks about his treatment, his chances of surviving the next five years, his reflections on the prospect of death, and his regrets. Paxman Meets Hitchens – A Newsnight Special will broadcast on BBC Two on Monday 29 November at 7.30pm.
Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in June this year, and the disease has now reached ‘stage four’. He describes the illness as “banal”, but accepts that his lifestyle may have played a role in his contracting it.
“If you’ve led a rather bohemian and rackety life, as I have, it’s precisely the cancer that you’d expect to get,” he says. “That’s a bit of a yawn.”
He tells Newsnight that he doesn’t feel ready to die, and that he feels “a sense of betrayal to his family and friends who will miss him”.
The following are key quotes from the interview:
Christopher Hitchens: “The particular form of malignancy I have is in my oesophagus but it’s metastasised, as they love to say, to my lymph nodes. You can actually feel one in my clavicle, on bad days anyway, and I’m afraid too at least a tiny speck in my lungs.
“And the prognosis for that is that if you lump it all together and you leave out every other consideration five per cent of us live another five years. So that’s not ideal. But I have a strong constitution for example which has served me quite well, though if I hadn’t had such a strong one I might have led a more healthy life perhaps.”
Jeremy Paxman: “The word most commonly used about cancer is battling cancer isn’t it?”
Christopher Hitchens: “I rather think it’s battling me I have to say. It’s much more what it feels like. I have to sit passively every few weeks and have a huge dose of kill or cure venom put straight into my veins. And then follow that up with other poisons too. Doesn’t feel like fighting at all. Possibly resisting I suppose, but you feel as if you’re drowning in passivity and being assaulted by something that has a horrible persistence, that’s working on you while you’re asleep.”
Jeremy Paxman: “Does it make you angry?”
Christopher Hitchens: “No, it makes me sober and objective… I’d like to prove to other people that it’s not the end of everything to be diagnosed with it.”
Jeremy Paxman: “And there will be people, and they won’t say it to your face perhaps, but ‘well, he smoked a lot, he drank a lot’.”
Christopher Hitchens: “That’s exactly what’s demystifying about it. There are also people who say it’s God’s curse on me that I should have it near my throat because that was the organ of blasphemy which I used for so many years. I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.”
Jeremy Paxman: “What does that do to the way you think about life?”
Christopher Hitchens: “Well, to borrow slightly from Dr Johnson, it does concentrate the mind to realise that your time is even more rationed than you thought it was. And though I can be stoic in the point of myself about that because everyone has to go sometime and whatever day came that the newspapers came out and I wasn’t there to read them, I’ve always thought that will be a bad day, at least for me.
“I now have a more pressing idea of what that might be like. Anyway that’s being stoic for my own sake. But for my family it’s not very nice. I could wish perhaps to have led a more healthy and upright life for their sake. And that’s a very melancholy reflection of course.”
Jeremy Paxman: “Does it make you regret saying or doing things?”
Christopher Hitchens: “This doesn’t, no. I mean I’ve sometimes had cause to regret saying things or wish I’d said them in a different way but that’s part of the ongoing revision of being a writer. I hope. This hasn’t prompted me to that, no. Perhaps it should.”
Jeremy Paxman: “Are there any of the targets of your polemic or essay in the past that you regret choosing?”
Christopher Hitchens: “No. No. I don’t. I regret only not doing more about it.”
Jeremy Paxman: “Do you think it’s been a life well lived?”
Chris Hitchens: “Oh, I’d really have to leave that to others, Jeremy, I have to. I’m encouraged, I’ll say this much, I’ve been encouraged in the last few months by some extraordinarily generous letters, including the ones I take most to heart from people I’ve never met or don’t know.
“If they say that what I’ve written or done or said means anything to them, then I’m happy to take it at face value, for once. I’ll say, ‘I’ll take that’. And yes, it cheers me up. And I hope it isn’t written with the intention of doing so. Though I must allow for it possibly being for that reason. I regret, which is a regret, I regret not doing it more often myself.”
Jeremy Paxman: “Do you fear death?”
Christopher Hitchens: “No. I’m not afraid of being dead, that’s to say there’s nothing to be afraid of. I won’t know I’m dead, would be my strong conviction. And if I find that I’m alive in any way at all, well that’ll be a pleasant surprise. I quite like surprises. But I strongly take leave to doubt it.
“I mean, one can’t live without fear, it’s a question of what is your attitude towards fear? I’m afraid of a sordid death. I’m afraid that, that I will die in an ugly or squalid way, and cancer can be very vigorous in that respect.”
Jeremy Paxman: “That’s a fear of dying…”
Jeremy Paxman: “It’s not a fear of death though.”
Christopher Hitchens: “Well of death, no. Of dying, yes. I feel a sense of waste about it because I’m not ready. I feel a sense of betrayal to my family and even to some of my friends who would miss me. Undone things, unattained objectives. But I hope I’d always have that, if I was 100 when I was checking out. But no, I think my main fear is of being incapacitated or imbecilic at the end. That of course, is not something to be afraid of, it’s something to be terrified of.”