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Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors    by Evan Handler order for
Time on Fire
by Evan Handler
Order:  USA  Can
Argo-Navis, 2012 (2012)
Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

At the age of 24, in 1985, Evan Handler was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. This cancer was considered incurable then, but Evan became one of the few who did manage to be cured. His determination to fight the illness with everything at his disposal - which sometimes meant challenging the doctors and nurses who weren't providing him with adequate care - was certainly a part of why he recovered. He learned everything he could about his disease and became vigilant about his care, and credits his girlfriend at the time, Jackie, with being a key part of his recovery. When he was too sick to notice what medicines the nurses were giving him, Jackie took over. Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors is his account of what happened to him from the time he learned that he had leukemia until he had been in remission long enough to be considered totally cured.

Facing a life-threatening illness at such a young age filled Evan with so much anger that he lashed out at everyone around him, including his parents, brother and sister, Jackie, and any friends who dared to say or do anything that he considered the wrong thing. He used his cutting wit to alienate many of those people, but he saved the sharpest questioning for his doctors and some of the nurses. He had no patience for doctors who supposedly knew everything about his cancer and didn't want any questions or suggestions from him. At first, because he was so terrified, he tended to try really hard to avoid antagonizing the doctors, spilling his anger onto his parents instead. After all, he knew his parents loved him in spite of his rage, but the doctors might abandon him. As time passed, though, and he didn't die, he learned more about his treatment and insisted on changing to doctors at Sloan-Kettering who, while not exactly being the understanding and helpful beings he would have wished for, were at least people he could question without fear.

Handler's writing is informative, concise, and frequently darkly humorous. He had many criticisms of Sloan-Kettering in New York City, where he was hospitalized and treated at first. He researched bone marrow transplants and learned about a new transplant procedure wherein your own bone marrow is used instead of someone else's, so he went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore when that became necessary - at that time it was one of the only places where that sort of bone marrow transplant was being done. The contrast between Johns Hopkins and Sloan-Kettering was dramatic. He couldn't believe how different it was and was amazed and disheartened that a small city like Baltimore should have such a marvelously better, state-of-the-art teaching hospital than a huge city like New York.

Although there have been changes in cancer treatment since the nineteen eighties, this eloquent account of everything that Evan Handler went through, including all the horrible details, brought a vivid new understanding to me of what chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant really involve. Even in the best hospitals, mistakes can be made, and reading about the conditions in an overcrowded, big city hospital in the eighties made me aware of how important it is that hospitals continue to change to avoid mistakes and unnecessary deaths. Having a relative or friend monitoring one's care should not be necessary. Enough good nurses watching over you are vital to proper care, as well as having doctors who are willing to listen to patients and be responsive to their questions and concerns. This engrossing, entertaining book details the good nurses and doctors with the bad, and somehow manages to find humor in the whole experience of survival.

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