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Good read: Christopher Hitchens travels from 'Welltown' to 'Tumortown' in 'Mortality'

By Joel Potash, MD

Christopher Hitchens Mortality bookChristopher Hitchens was a famous author, journalist, and lecturer who loved to debate religion with representatives of various religions. He was an atheist and perhaps best know for his book, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

In 2010, on the day of a book signing event for his new memoir, “Hitch 22,” he experienced chest pain and went to a hospital emergency room, where an x-ray showed lung cancer, later found to be metastatic from cancer of the esophagus. “Mortality” tells his story until his death in 2011, from "Welltown" to "Tumortown.”

Hitchens chose aggresssive treatments in hopes of prolonging his life, and if not, then of adding to medical knowledge of cancer treatment that might help others. His treatment side effects included loss of his voice, hair loss, fatigue, inability to swallow food, and nerve weakness that caused the loss of function of his writing arm. Writing and speaking were the two most important things to him.

Yet, he endured.

As he was an avowed atheist, some of the public saw this as fitting punishment. Others set up prayer days, hoping for the efficacy of prayer in his healing. Hitchens disavowed both.

Hitchens is splendid in talking of the etiquette of dealing with a dying person. His comments about treating physicians remind me of the play, “W;t.” Some physicians remain uncertain about what and how much to tell patients about their diseases and treatments.

A physician who cares for dying patients recently wrote in the New York Times that when he asked his oncologist how long he had to live, the oncologist refused to answer -- and the physician with cancer defended the oncologist's choice. I'm not sure I agree, but there is no one approach to all patients with a terminal disease.

So, is it helpful (or depressing) to read books about dying? I have a shelf full of such books, both fiction and non-fiction. Neither doctors nor patients seem to have the time or energy to go in depth into patient experiences of disease and treatments, so I find these books expand my understanding of what patients (and doctors) go through in dealing with the dying process. They may also educate future patients about the medical system so they can deal with it more satisfactorily. 

Medical students and residents should be required to read some of these books. But will they prepare me for the time when I may be dying? I hope so -- but all bets are off when that time comes.

Joel Potash, MD is emeritus faculty in Upstate's Center for Bioethics and Humanities. This book review appears in the winter issue of Upstate Health magazine. 

Other books about death and dying:

“Without,” poems by Donald Hall

“W;t,” a play by Margaret Edson

“Messages from My Father,” a memoir by Calvin Trillin

“Death Be Not Proud,” by John J. Gunther

“How We Die, Reflections of Life‘s Final Chapter,” by Sherwin B. Nuland

“The Last Lecture,” by Randy Pausch

“A Death in the Family,” by James Agee