Still, Hitchens pressed ahead. He continued to write -- for Slate, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, where he had been a contributing editor since 1992. In 2011, he published a new book, "Arguably," a collection of essays. He spoke and wrote movingly about the approaching end of his life.
"My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist," he wrote in "Vanity Fair."
Hitchens' antipathy toward religion did not wane even when an evangelical Christian physician assumed a leading role in his care. Hitchens and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and the author of "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," had become friends when the two debated each other in public about the existence of God.
Collins used DNA mapping to find a drug that targeted the genetic mutation involved in Hitchens' cancer.
"It is a rather wonderful relationship," Hitchens told The Telegraph of London. "I won't say he doesn't pray for me, because I think he probably does; but he doesn't discuss it with me."
Hitchens added, "He agrees that his medical experience does not include anything that could be described as a miracle cure."
He acknowledged, though, that cancer posed a unique challenge for someone who publicly held religion in such disregard.
"An enormous number of secular and atheist friends have told me encouraging and flattering things like: 'If anyone can beat this, you can'; 'Cancer has no chance against someone like you'; 'We know you can vanquish this.' On bad days, and even on better ones, such exhortations can have a vaguely depressing effect," he wrote in "Vanity Fair."
"If I check out, I'll be letting all these comrades down," he added. "A different secular problem also occurs to me: What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating."