From the Stage to Survival
by Jessica Webb Errickson
Evan Handler, the 52-year-old actor, author, and screenwriter who is perhaps best known for his roles in HBO’s iconic Sex and the City and Showtime’s Californication, began his acting career long before these popular shows ever hit the air. An eager thespian, Evan took to the stage in his early 20s, appearing (and starring) in several Broadway productions. But at 24 years old, a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia forced Evan to shift his focus from fighting for lead roles to fighting for his life.
“I was understudying in a Neil Simon play on Broadway, and I had flu and sore throat symptoms that didn’t go away,” Evan recalls in an interview with Coping® magazine. “I was lucky enough to see a doctor who was thorough in his questions and who sent me for blood tests, which over the course of the next day or so revealed that something was dreadfully wrong.”
The shocking news that he, as a young man in his mid-20s, had leukemia elicited a strong reaction from the up-and-coming actor. “I experienced a severe dread and panic. I sobbed and screamed and sputtered in a way that I had never seen an adult break down before,” he admits. “That’s startling – to be going through it and to be aware that you’re manifesting some kind of breakdown that you’d never even witnessed before.”
An intense regimen of massive doses of chemotherapy was the course of action Evan’s doctors took to help him achieve remission. But even after successful treatment of his disease, which at the time was thought to be incurable, he knew there was a high probability his cancer could recur. And nearly two years later, it did.
Recurrence, Remission, and Neil Simon
“This time, I was starring in a Neil Simon play on Broadway, so my initial reaction was to wonder whether Neil Simon plays were carcinogenic,” Evan jokes. “I wasn’t feeling well again, and in those days, when I wasn’t feeling well or if anything was off in my blood counts, I would immediately have a bone marrow sample taken. I got a call a couple of days later from my physician to tell me that the leukemia had recurred.
I didn’t really find anything about cancer funny, but I discovered that funny things continued to exist.
“It’s a very strange, surreal existential whirlpool,” he continues. “You’re being told that your life is most likely over by people you don’t necessarily know very well. So it’s news that’s very difficult to accept.”
Evan persevered through his illness, drawing strength from his personal mission “to exist as an example for others and to show that a person doesn’t have to go through cancer passively.” He again achieved remission, this time followed by an autologous bone marrow transplant (meaning doctors used his own bone marrow for the transplant), which was a fairly new procedure at the time. Then, he got back to work.
“One of the oddities of my life was I got cast in my first audition back after my bone marrow transplant,” Evan says. “So it seemed like my acting career was the most secure thing about my life – even more secure than my life itself.”
Six Degrees of Post-Cancer Isolation
Though his physical recovery took close to a year (his sweat glands temporarily shut down after the transplant, so he had to repeatedly wet himself down to keep from overheating onstage), he says his emotional and social reintegration into the world took much longer. Cast in the original production of Six Degrees of Separation, Evan had a hard time relating to his peers.
“There was a whole contingent of people at a similar age, late 20s approaching 30,” he says, “and we were all going through our various dating debacles and psychotherapies. And my experience over the previous few years had been different from theirs, to say the least. So there was a pretty intense isolation I felt, and I’m sure that their reactions to me and some of my attitudes and ways of behaving must have been puzzlement. I think I had a pretty dark sensibility and pretty stark way of walking through the world in those days.”
Evan’s struggle connecting with his peers coupled with his desire to inspire others to take an active role in their treatment motivated him to tell his story. He started small, detailing his cancer journey in short written pieces that he would read aloud at a New York theatre company. He eventually went on to tell these stories at medical conferences and in his own off-Broadway production.
“It really gave people some greater insight into the extreme experiences that had shaped my personality,” he says, “and it gave me a sense of a new identity as not just a survivor but as a bit of an activist and as a writer.”
It seemed like my acting career was the most secure thing about my life – even more secure than my life itself.
Ultimately, these stories came together to compose his cancer memoir Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors. Though Evan admits to cringing at others’ cancer jokes, his book is infused with not only honesty but also humor.
“I didn’t really find anything about cancer funny, but I discovered that funny things continued to exist,” he explains. “Although certain people who visited me on certain days might see it differently, I don’t think I lost my ability to laugh at those funny things that were happening in the midst of what I was going through.”
After spending some time performing pieces from Time on Fire, Evan took a hard turn out of stage acting to concentrate on film and television, where he rose to stardom in the roles he’s so known for today – Californication’s Charlie Runkle and Sex and the City’s Harry Goldenblatt. He also published a second memoir in 2008, It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive, a compilation of stories that chronicle his journey to put his life back together after cancer.
The “Gift” of Cancer
Though he’s accomplished much in his post-cancer life, including becoming a husband and father, Evan doesn’t share the view of so many other cancer survivors that cancer is a gift. “I certainly was opportunistic about latching onto benefits and advantages, but I would never personally say that I think my life has been better for it,” he admits. “I think it’s fine to say I have a great life even though I’d rather all these things hadn’t happened to me.”
The bottom line for Evan is this: he has a great life – in spite of cancer.
Earlier this year, Evan re-released Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors and It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive and made them available in eBook formats. Learn more about Evan at EvanHandler.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2013.