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Monday, February 5, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Handler Disarms Fears Of Serious Illness By Reliving `Time On Fire'

Seattle Times Theater Critic

Imagine this movie scenario:

A neurotic but engaging New York actor in his early 20s suddenly discovers he has a form of leukemia curable in only 25 percent of cases. Panicked but clinging fast to his acerbic sense of humor, his hefty ego and his loyal girlfriend, he endures excruciating rounds of treatment at a famous but nightmarish cancer hospital.

With the fervor of a desperate skeptic, he also explores the wide world of New Age therapies - creative visualization, psychic healing, even walking barefoot over hot coals.

This Woody Allen-esque tale will someday be a film directed by Rob Morrow, former star of TV's "Northern Exposure."

But the plot is no fiction: It describes the harrowing but ultimately triumphant odyssey of actor-writer Evan Handler. He's transformed his bout with leukemia into a one-man Off Broadway show, and chronicled it in the new book, "Time on Fire" (Little, Brown; $21.95), a memoir as scathingly candid as it is unexpectedly funny.

Handler's account of his illness and (thanks to a life-saving bone-marrow transplant eight years ago) his recovery, spares none of the gory details - and no one's shortcomings, especially his own.

By turns irascible and euphoric, despairing and optimistic, the patient lashed out at his devoted but sometimes helpless parents, his girlfriend Jackie, and a parade of callous and sloppy doctors who treated him at a prestigious cancer treatment center he came to despise: Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital.

Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which Handler visited for a consultation, fares much better in the book - partly because the expert he saw there generously recommended he check out John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where Handler had his successful transplant.

Here last week for a reading and book signing at Elliott Bay Book Co., Handler emanated the smart-aleck intensity and spiritual calm that co-exist on the pages of "Time on Fire."

Short and wiry, with a boyish face and a bald pate (one in 10 bone marrow transplant patients come away with permanently damaged hair follicles, he notes), the 30-year-old actor sipped on hot water and lemon in a hotel cafe, and explained why he keeps talking and writing about an experience most people would want to forget.

"I came out of my illness feeling that I had no role models of anyone who had fought well and been cured," he explained. "That would have really helped me, and I thought it was something many other people would find very useful."

"Time on Fire" began as a one-man play. Handler - who appeared at Seattle Repertory Theatre in "Jolson Sings Again" last year, and on Broadway in "Broadway Bound" and "I Hate Hamlet" - developed it in a workshop series sponsored by Off Broadway's Naked Angels Theatre.

"Around New York there's a lot of really skilled, facile writers who aren't writing anything too probing or deep," Handler contends.

"They haven't learned what I learned very quickly: that people most want to hear what you least want to reveal."

Criticizing his care at Sloan Kettering (the hospital has since been publicly accused of making egregious surgical errors), and conveying his early sense of impotence within a cold, confusing medical labyrinth, Handler found that "the angrier I got in the writing, the more vindicated the people listening felt. It touched a pulse in everyone, because all of us have burdens to deal with."

Though solo theater pieces are routinely constructed around self-revelation, Handler says an open discussion of serious illness is rare.

"I was told from the word go, `Who's going to want to hear about this?' But I discovered that even if my story disturbs people, it also disarms their fears.

"People are eager to transcend their fears, and if I tell my story honestly, with all the horror, humor, chaos, absurdity and hope intact, they'll listen."

The book drives home the message that self-empowerment and vigilant self-advocacy are essential for healing.

"Information is power," Handler says. "I was intimidated into making instant medical decisions before I had all the information. And anyone who denies you access to information is not to be trusted."

While Handler found some alternative body-mind therapies useful, he is critical of those who suggest cancer patients "create" their diseases.

"Do your attitude and approach to getting well have an impact on your illness? Yes. Do emotional states actually bring on illnesses? I'm less convinced of that. And though good attitudes activate, a great attitude is no match for pneumonia."

Handler bristles when questioned about the current state of his health.

"Didn't I use the word `cured' in my book several times?" he snaps. "It's funny, it's like people don't want to believe you can defeat leukemia, but you can. I've been healthy for eight years, and am considered cured."

He also points out that leukemia treatments are steadily improving, and survival rates are rising.

Handler now performs his one-man show only for audiences of health care professionals now.

"Many come up afterward to tell me that the bad things in my treatment happen a lot," he says. "They just aren't talked about openly."

Handler intends to keep raising the subject, but is ready to move on to with other things too. He'll appear in the next Ron Howard film, "Ransom," and write the screenplay for "Time on Fire."

And his next book is already mapped out.

"It's a novel, about a man with experiences very similar to my own," Handler reveals a bit sheepishly. "It's about a guy who turns every job, every vacation, every relationship and every date, into a near-death experience."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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