Monday, February 5, 2018

‘Time on Fire’ shares cancer’s lesson: Life is ‘the sweetest candy’

Station Hospital, by Robert Sloan (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Distant friends are like distant comets. Gone for long periods. Then suddenly back, lighting the darkness for a time before looping out of sight again.
     Which is why a friend who retired to Florida, but in November was in town and stopped by the newspaper — whoops, multi-format storytelling platform — surprised me by phoning last week. Off-schedule. I was puzzling over this when she texted: Where are you? That got me on the phone, the cold hand of unease squeezing my shoulder.
     Some preliminary chat. Then she let it drop: cancer, one kidney already gone, a pea's worth of Mr. C. discovered in her lungs. Chemo started.
     My turn to say something.
     "That's terrible," I began, then tried to reel it back. "Losing a kidney . . . well, humans are designed for that. That's why we have two. And cancer . . . people shrug off cancer nowadays. It's like having an unpleasant hobby."
     I told her about one of my older son's best friends since kindergarten, now 22. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in August, back at school, prognosis good, by January.
     "What's your address?" I asked. "I'm sending you a book."
     The book I send to all my friends facing cancer is "Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors," by Evan Handler, a 1996 memoir that begins this way: 

     "I'm afraid it is not good news," is what he said. "It is bad news. It is in the bone marrow. It's an acute myelogenous leukemia."
     And just like that, Handler, then a young Broadway actor, is exiled to the land of sickness.

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  1. I hope you don't mind my using this opportunity to plug a fantastic program that the American Cancer Society has called Road To Recovery. Volunteers drive patients to and from treatments. It can be a godsend to those who are not able to easily get transport to a facility that may be a fair distance from home. And it's a great volunteer gig because it's very flexible.

    1. Have you had direct experience with RTR? I'd love to hear it! I've tried to link patients in hospitals with them in the past, but have yet to find a volunteer who's free and in the same area where the patient's reside. This was in Texas; perhaps IL is better equipped? Thank you! I currently have clients in TX and IL so I'd love to know.

    2. Hi, Caren! I have been a volunteer for RTR for a number of years. Unfortunately, the program was suspended when Covid began. They are running a few pilot programs around the country with the intention of re-opening again this year. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have. I suspect there were generally more requests than volunteers to fill them, but I think our area did a pretty good job of fulfilling most requests. I worked in the Chicago suburbs; I’m not sure what the situation was in the city itself.

  2. I bought "Time on Fire" when Neil last recommended it and found it inspiring and entertaining. However, I didn't pass it on as planned to my 69-year-old cousin who'd been diagnosed with liver cancer, as I thought it much too graphic and revealing for her. She was already more than capable of questioning her doctors' recommendations and was a full partner in choosing the treatments suggested by them. She never gave up, but succumbed shortly after reaching 70. I think Handler's book would have been too shocking to be helpful for her, but I'm sure it has served Neil's friends well, encouraging them to fight on despite unfavorable odds, recalcitrant health care providers, and family bickering.


  3. I've always been lucky health-wise. Only been in the hospital once as a patient, and that was when a colonoscopy nicked something it shouldn't have.

    The downside is that I'm squeamish. I hate even reading about descriptions of illness, which is why I could never read this book. When I do become seriously ill, I pity the poor nurses who will be stuck caring for me, because I will be the biggest baby in the world.

    (To any men of a certain age reading this: Do not let my remark in the first paragraph put you off getting a colonoscopy. It was worth it, because they removed an advanced-stage polyp. I was told that had I not had the procedure, I might very will have contracted colon cancer in a few months.)

    1. (Women, too!) Glad you dodged that bullet.

  4. How one approaches death must depend on one's circumstances. On the scaffold one would, like Madam Debary, understandably plead for "Un moment encore, Monsieur." But facing nothing but debilitation and unrelieved pain Miss Dickenson's point of view might be more understandable.

    "Because I could not stop for Death,
    He kindly stopped for me."


  5. Thank you for sharing this and wishing your friend the very best. It can be such a challenge to truly value my life as it is sometimes, and I want to- at all times.


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