The other day, I logged on to Facebook and read a link that someone had posted about the death of the writer and broadcaster, Christopher Hitchens. It shouldn’t have come as a big surprise. He had been diagnosed with stage four oesophageal cancer over a year ago, just like his father had done before him. Prior to this, he had unashamedly confessed to having spent a large portion of his life filling his vital organs with copious amounts of smoke and liquor. He had always expected this to happen, but perhaps not so soon. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel sad. I never knew him and am sure that had I done, I might well have despised him. As well as talent, wit and intelligence, he also seemed to be a victim of his own ego and arrogance, which often revealed itself in the form of anger and impatience in television broadcasts. But he was, for the last year and a half of his life, a cancer patient like me. And I remember feeling buoyed with hope and admiration when I discovered that despite the grim prognosis, he still seemed to work and write with the same passion and enthusiasm as before. His writing about cancer seemed to give him an aura of immortality. Here was a man who couldn’t possibly die, not when his writing felt so very alive. And while his words had the power to rouse and rankle all that read his work, they also gave us a false assurance that perhaps here was a man who really was in control of his destiny. Because despite the illness, despite the grueling treatments, he could still do the very thing that gave him the most joy in life, he could still write. The irony of this is that as cancer patients, control is the one thing that we most desire but are the least likely to attain. His passing saddens me because as well as thinking of him as ‘another one bites the dust’, I can’t help but feel the same sense of frustration that I felt when I heard of the deaths of Steve Jobs and David Servan-Schreiber. Both were men were made no secret of their illness, both spent the last stages of their lives actively living with cancer, rather than dying from it. They were great role models for those of us who still struggle daily with the sense of a dual identity given to us by this illness.
I’m not ashamed to admit that my feelings of sadness also come from a source of my own selfishness. Because for every wealthy, robust individual in the public eye who doesn’t make it, the hope for little ole’ me being able to keep the big C away from my door seems to grow smaller and smaller each day. But metastatic breast cancer is a strange beast. There are examples of women who have lasted just a few years after diagnosis, while others seem to just keep on going and going. But stranger than this, is the emotive power of the ‘C’ word. Despite the fact that cancer is a collection of more than 100 diseases, diseases that are so diverse in both type and biology that they could easily be categorised as completely different illnesses altogether, I am still able to feel intense feelings of empathy for individuals and their families affected by this disease who I’ll never, ever meet. So farewell Christopher, farewell David, farewell Steve. I never knew any of you at all, but your passing and your achievements despite your illness, will always remain in my thoughts.