Christopher Hitchens, Cancer and Crap

Those of us who have been reading Christopher Hitchens’ articles, essays and books for some time and are attracted by and appreciative of his remarkable facility with language and his writing style, not to say the content of his writings, are now following his regular articles detailing the current problems in his life.

Christopher Hitchens

He is leading a very public ‘living with cancer’ that is as robust a life as he has ever led politically, as a public intellectual and pundit and as a combatant against religious believers who insist that their views have an absolute intrinsic value. He admits his excessive use of alcohol and nicotine are factors in his oesophageal cancer. His prognosis is poor. He writes honestly and well in Vanity Fair about this cancer and its effect on his life.

I joined battle a little while ago with a religious evangelist on youtube who had had the temerity to post a 9 minute plea for Hitchens to recant his non-belief and fall into the metaphorical arms of Jebus and be ‘saved’ before his death.

The video she made was so sickening that I clicked the stop button in order to cease the heaving in my stomach. Then I got stuck in to her. To no avail; she couldn’t see from the 340 odd comments lambasting her that she was being mealy mouthed while trying to wring a bit of Jesus propaganda from Hitchens’ sufferings. The height of disgusting religiosity.

Hitchens has also had to put up with people praying for him – no one is quite sure what form these prayers take. Could be some are praying for a death bed conversion; others praying for his recovery to full health. And, I suppose some twisted souls (!) are praying he gets his comeuppance at the ‘doors of heaven’.

Graciously Hitchens concedes that it will be of no benefit to him but may make the do-gooders feel better.

Likewise he has been inundated by the wooers telling him what magic outlandish cure to try next. It is a bit reminiscent of another journalist who developed throat cancer. John Diamond wrote a book detailing these woo ‘cures’. Snake Oil and other preoccupations was published in 2001

after Diamond’s death.  Snake Oil etc by Diamond

The one thing that has slipped into the language is that the sufferer of cancer does ‘battle’ with the disease, as in:

‘He has lost a long battle with cancer.’

‘He put up a valiant fight against cancer but ultimately lost the battle.’

The ‘big C’ as a moniker imbues all cancers with a bogey-man type status. The ‘silent killer’ is another moniker that adds fear of the unseen. So it is an easy jump from that to imbue cancer with devilish design and retribution.

We are told to not get stressed – ‘you’ll get cancer’; don’t get angry/vengeful/think nasty thoughts – ‘you’ll get cancer; don’t eat GM foods (that’s a doozy) – you’ll risk a cancer and so on ad nauseum. It’s enough to make you sick.

Apart from silly woo associated with cancer and its ‘cures’, there remains strong evidenced medical research that is turning up a lot more information about different cancers.

This 2002 global study details 26 cancers and concludes that the cancers associated with affluence – the so-called Western Lifestyle – include colon and rectum, breast and prostate and all appear to have a rather good prognosis. The cancers more prevalent and with a poor prognosis in developing countries include cancers of the liver, stomach and oesophagus.

There are some 8 papilloma viruses associated with cervical cancer. There are hepatic viruses causing liver and associated cancers. There are genetic factors as well. Then there is UV radiation and background radiation from decaying radionuclides like radon extant in the earth. Soot and smoke from fire (been around for ages!) contain a multitude of carcinogens. In fact carcinogens are endemic to our planet.

And we live longer – the incidence of cancers increases with longevity. We have AIDS within our global population and that has increased the incidence, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, of Kaposi sarcoma. Also, product and resource industrialisation is spreading throughout the world carrying with it the attendant ills that increase the incidence of cancers. That is the ‘modernity’ of cancers as researched.

The upshot of the magical status ascribed to cancers of all stripe is that reporting studies in the tabloid press is less than robust. Indeed, they appear to be downright designed to misreport and sensationalise unnecessarily.

The latest newsfest concerns a study undertaken by Prof. David (Manchester Uni) and Prof. Zimmerman (Pennsylvania Uni). They are reported as stating that cancer is a modern day disease because their research appears to find few cancers in their subjects of over 3,000 years ago.  Their study uses the mummified/skeletal remains of subjects under 50 years of age. This is not mentioned in the press. Any study of subjects under 50 in modern times will also yield a lower incidence of cancers.

Mind you it appears the duo may have made some intemperate statements linking cancer to modernity. The New Scientist addressed this research in an article stating in answer to the question of there being elements of modern life that cause cancers:

Yes, indeed, but most of them are down to poor lifestyle choices that people can do something about, not, as implied, because they are drowning in a sea of carcinogens from which there is no escape.

Given the New Scientist article with its more comprehensive treatment of David’s and Zimmerman’s research plus  Coghlan’s own comments, it is surprising that the tabloids persist in showing their cavalier attitude to science reporting. Their image sinks further and is not what the populace needs in its reading matter. I try not to be depressed!!!

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