Influential -- yet controversial -- writer, journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens passed away from pneumonia on Dec. 15, according to news reports. The pneumonia was a complication of esophageal cancer, which he was diagnosed with last June.
BBC News reported that Hitchens, 62, had documented his experience with his diagnosis and health in a column in Vanity Fair magazine in the time following his diagnosis.
"I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient," BBC News reported that he wrote in an August 2010 Vanity Fair essay.
Esophageal cancer occurs in the esophagus, the tube that carries food to the stomach. According to Everyday Health, pneumonia can be a complication of esophageal cancer "because a tumor is blocking the esophagus and forcing food and liquid down the windpipe," thereby leading to aspiration pneumonia, which is lung infection due to breathing in of a foreign substance.
Esophageal cancer is more common in men than in women, and is less prevalent in the United States than in other parts of the world, like in some Asian and African countries, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While rare, esophageal cancer is also dedly. So far this year, there have been 16,980 new cases of esophageal cancer in the united States, and 14,710 deaths from the cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. The cancer is often not curable, the A.D.A.M. medical encyclopedia reported.
There are two main types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, which is cancer that starts in the flat cells that line the esophagus and is linked with smoking and alcohol; and adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, which starts in cells that create and release mucus and other bodily fluid, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus is the most common kind of esophageal cancer in the U.S., and most often affects white men, according to the Mayo Clinic. Squamous cell carcinoma, on the other hand, is the most prevalent esophageal cancer around the world.
Risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus can be increased by Barrett's esophagus, which is a complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease. Being a man, being obese and smoking can also increase the risk for this form of esophageal cancer, according to the A.D.A.M. medical encyclopedia.
Certain factors and behaviors can increase the risk of esophageal cancer, including drinking alcohol, chewing tobacco, having bile reflux, drinking extremely hot liquids, having gastroesophageal reflux disease, being obese, having Barrett's esophagus, smoking, and having radiation treatments to the area, the Mayo Clinic reported. Blisstree reported that Hitchens smoked and drank alcohol in his lifetime (he quit smoking in 2007).
Symptoms of esophageal cancer include problems swallowing, fatigue, chest pain, weight loss, heartburn or indigestion and coughing.
Aside from pneumonia, other complications from esophageal cancer include bleeding, weight loss, coughing and blocking of the esophagus, the Mayo Clinic reported.
Imaging tests, including MRI, CT and PET scans, are often used to diagnose esophageal cancer. The treatment of choice is surgery if the cancer has not yet spread, though chemotherapy and radiation are also options in lieu of or in addition to surgery, according to the A.D.A.M. medical encyclopedia.
Earlier this year, baseball Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew died of esophageal cancer at age 74. The former Minnesota Twins baseball player died six months after announcing his cancer diagnosis, ESPN reported.
And Bruce Dal Canton, a former baseball player with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates, died at age 66 in 2008 from esophageal cancer, ESPN reported.