Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2004 / 25 Kislev, 5765

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

A passage painful and profound — Some go ‘through the door’ | When Charlie Bell was named chief executive of McDonald's, last April, he was at the top of his game. Only 43, the brash Australian charged in and vowed to pump new life into the aging burger chain. Beating the competition, Business Week said, would be "a tall order."

Bell resigned only eight months later. His enemy was no longer Burger King or Wendy's, but colorectal cancer. He heard the bad news just weeks into the top job, then underwent surgery and grueling rounds of chemo. The man who once said he'd ram a fire hose down the throat of a drowning rival now apologizes for his weak voice. And he is learning all about tall orders.

Bell, as my late brother-in-law would have put it, had "gone through the door." He had joined the millions of Americans who suddenly found their lives turned upside down — and priorities radically reordered — by a frightening illness.

Elizabeth Edwards recently went through the door. She had been devoting her every energy to the vice-presidential campaign of her husband, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Just days before the vote, the 55-year-old felt a lump in her breast and went for tests. The verdict: invasive breast cancer.

Most of us live outside the door. Young people, especially, may know intellectually that they will die someday, but they imagine their earthly existence ending in some misty far-off future.

Cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence. Some cases are virtually cured, and others can be managed for many years. But the diagnosis sure launches new reflection on life's fickle timetable.

Edwards tells of how, shortly after the diagnosis, she was leaving church and came upon a woman who had lost her hair, probably from chemotherapy. The woman gave her a pink ribbon for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and asked whether she was a breast-cancer survivor. Edwards recalls: "And I thought to myself, I don't know the answer to that."

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People who've confronted their mortality — whether through disease or on the battlefield — are different from the rest of us. They watch the oblivious masses spend enormous amounts of time counting sports scores, prizes and, above all, dollars. For the cancer patient, the only numbers that matter are on medical tests. And most would trade their very last cent to make the disease ago away.

If the charms of success protected one from harm, my brother-in-law would have lived forever. A father of two young kids, Rich owned a good business, coached youth soccer and was very handsome. Only in his mid-40s, he had blamed a growing fatigue on some sort of bug. When a doctor finally told him it was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he was astounded. We all were.

Rich had gone through the door. He would sit in a big room with other patients and watch a bag of chemicals empty into his veins. I once asked him whether he felt bitter about having his life interrupted at such a relatively young age. He responded, "No, I'm one of the oldest people in the room."

Punishing chemo and a bone-marrow transplant operation didn't fix Rich. He died a week after turning 50. I thought of his story recently, when a neighbor reported that her 20-year-old son had just attended the funeral of a classmate who had lost a battle with leukemia.

People who've gotten up close and personal with their transience can't ever go back to the land of denial, nor would they want to. Knowing that their time is finite has made their remaining time — whether it be days, years or decades — seem unbelievably more precious.

A friend who lost both breasts to cancer carries a laminated newspaper clipping in her wallet. It contains a quote by Ernestine Bradley, a breast-cancer survivor and wife of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

It says: "Having had cancer and seeing that there could be an end to what you take for granted has given me a lot of strength, to make the life I now have more intense, more conscious and therefore more wonderful."

No one volunteers to go through the door. But inside is wisdom that we all can share: Everyone's candle is burning. The only question, really, is the length of the wick.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.