To help it celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Robert and Beverly Lewis Family Cancer Care Center, the Pomona Valley Medical Center Foundation invited actor, author, activist and advocate Fran Drescher to share her particular cancer survival story at the Sheraton Fairplex Convention Center on Saturday morning.
Drescher, who broke into film with a small part in “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) with John Travolta, went on to star as Fran Fine in the hit comedy series, “The Nanny,” which aired on CBS from 1993 to 1996, earning Frescher Globe and Emmy nominations.
In 2000, after two years of symptoms and misdiagnosis by eight doctors, Drescher learned she had uterine cancer for which she had to undergo a radical hysterectomy.
“I felt betrayed not only by my own body, but by the medical community,” Drescher said.
As part of her healing process, she wrote the New York Times best- seller, “Cancer Schmancer,” in 2002, using it as a springboard to launch the Cancer Schmancer Movement in 2007, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all women’s cancers be diagnosed while in Stage 1, the most curable stage. That same year, she was instrumental in passing the Gynecologic Cancer Education & Awareness Act — by unanimous consent — the first of its kind in US history. In 2008, she was appointed a U.S. diplomat, doing work in connection with her advocacy for women’s health and cancer awareness.
Today, she is hard at work on the Carcinogen-FREE Label Act, a bi-partisan bill introduced in 2012 so that consumers can make healthier choices and, through purchasing power, dictate trends that influence the formulas of household products and food.
Meanwhile, her acting career is more vibrant than ever. Her latest work includes voicing Eunice, the wife of Frankenstein’s monster, in “Hotel Transylvania”, and starring in her own TV show (modeled after her very own life), “Happily Divorced.”
Before addressing the audience, which included donors, caregivers, cancer survivors and “Fran Fans,” Drescher sat down with LaVerneOnline.com and the AllBusinessJournal.com to talk about her life and mission.
Q. You’ve faced a lot of devastating and challenging events in your life – rape, cancer, divorce, shows being canceled, etc. – how do you deal with all that and keep smiling and moving forward?
A. I think the experience of being diagnosed with cancer very quickly revealed its silver linings. It wasn’t that I didn’t plummet to the depths of despair, because I certainly did and was very frightened that it was the end of the line for me, but there were things I was already learning about myself that I was able to bring into action, one of which was to stop worrying about everyone else and start worrying about myself — to be able to ask for help and not just be comfortable giving it. And from that point forward, there was just a long list of things, and certainly becoming a health activist and patient advocate and turning pain into purpose has given a resonance to my life that I might not have otherwise had. And I really feel like I got famous, got cancer and lived to talk about it for a reason.
Out of the experience and the need to try to gain control back of my life, I wrote what became the New York Times best-seller, “Cancer Schmancer.”
It’s been about 10 years since the book was first published. Is the information still as fresh and relevant as the day it came out?
Absolutely. I get people all the time telling me that the book really made a huge impact on them and the words, “Cancer Schmancer” became their mantra when they were really low. And that, of course, became the movement. I wrote the book because I didn’t want what happened to me to happen to other people.
When I went on the lecture series, which is what you tend to do when you have a New York Times best-seller, I realized that what happened to me happens to millions of Americans by means of misdiagnosis and mistreatment. And for many — though fortunately not myself – late-stage cancer diagnosis is a consequence.
I knew the book was not the end, but just the beginning of what’s become a life mission. So, “Cancer Schmancer” was developed because I started to form a vision of how I thought health in America and the way we thought about our bodies — the way we navigated ourselves through the health care system — needed to be reexamined and maybe hopefully and potentially changed.
Now we’re making our mark and pushing the needle in that direction certainly, so I’m very proud of everything that we do and all the people we get to speak to and hopefully influence for the greater good.
After dealing with your diagnosis on a very personal level, what other thoughts ran through your head, such as, “Do I go public with this?” or “Will this mean the end of my acting career?”
I definitely was outed by the tabloids before I even had a chance to reconcile. I was still in the hospital. I hadn’t even really had a chance to absorb how this had impacted me – not only that this was happening to me, but that the cure for my cancer was a radical hysterectomy – which is a difficult operation for any woman, but for one who did not have children like myself, it was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
So when my manager and dear friend Elaine — who I speak about quite a bit in the book because she is a wise old owl — brought me the headlines, I wept because it seemed so real and in my face and so public. It wasn’t even my career as much as just feeling like damaged goods. I don’t know. I really hadn’t thoroughly absorbed that this is what was happening to me, even though I had the wherewithal to make strategic decisions early on that turned out to be good ones. Still, seeing it in print was quite leveling.
But, I think it brought a side of me out to the public that “The Nanny” — which was my great claim to fame certainly at the time — hadn’t really exposed. So, becoming a very visible face in this space and the kind of go-to celebrity for all issues – certainly relating to cancer and health – is something that helps the public to see me closer to what I really am, which I’m also grateful for.
Indeed, your mission has already produced some amazing results. Not bad for a kid from Queens!
As someone who is very active in Washington, I’m very proud of the Gynecological Cancer Education and Awareness Act – the first of its kind in U.S. history — that was passed by unanimous consent, which means all 100 senators said yes.
Maybe you need to be there right now on Capitol Hill to help with the dual budget and debt crises.
I am there. We have a new bipartisan bill. We are gaining traction with both parties in a very proactive and partisan way. I’m in it to win it. This is the Carcinogen-FREE Label Act. Health is a great equalizer. It doesn’t really know party affiliation, or nationality or ethnicity or religion. It is the one subject that I think that we can come together on in Washington and do something on behalf of American families.
I know you had once entertained running for Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat in 2008. Ultimately, you didn’t choose that path. Was that decision based in part on a public perception that you’re the Nanny and funny and not to be taken seriously? Even your book, “Cancer Schmancer,” suggests a lighter, less serious side.
I reach people in different ways. Some people come up to me and say, “Ah, ‘The Nanny’ was the one thing we were all able to laugh at when mom was dying in the hospital.” And you know what, that’s great, too. If they haven’t read the book or have never gone on the “Cancer Schmancer” website, they may not realize all the times I’ve talked publicly. I’m grateful for any way that I can reach the American people, including making people laugh.
I’m also now a vetted public diplomacy envoy for the U.S. State Department. The government leverages my international celebrity and I speak to all of our allied nations, as well as our military, on the message that I’m going to share with the audience today.
Do you sometimes call your high school classmate, comedian Ray Romano, to ask what he has done lately?
Ray is philanthropic and does good things also. He raises money through comedy for kids. He’s out there. He’s a great guy. We graduated the same year from the same high school and ended up on the same network.
You live in Malibu. Your parents live in south Florida, but you remain a tight-knit family. In fact, your parents have appeared in some of your shows? How much of your success and inner strength do you attribute to your family?
If I meet anyone that shows a strength in character, no matter what age they are, I credit their parents. I speak to my parents every day, sometimes more than once a day. We’re extremely close and we take vacations together and I cherish them. I wish they lived in my neighborhood, but they love south Florida. My dad plays golf, my mom plays mahjong. And I think it was their deep and mutually respectful, loving relationship that was quite a strong model for my sister and me. They’re very good people, and we’re very blessed.
I know you’re involved in lots of other issues besides increasing cancer awareness and education. How are you able to balance them all?
I do have a few platforms I’m vocal about. When you’re a celebrity and you don’t use your reach for the greater good, you’re really wasting it.
Did you always want to be a celebrity? I know there’s the story of you and your husband at the time cornering a CBS executive on an airplane – a captive audience if there ever was one — to tell him about your idea for what became “The Nanny.”
I always knew I would reach great heights. If it wasn’t the acting, it would have been something else. I’m an over-achiever. And I know how I impact people and I’m a natural leader. I was when I was a kid. I come from a very provincial community. The song that Simon and Garfunkel sang, “My Little Town,” was my town. They grew up in my town. What inspired them to write that song is exactly the neighborhood I grew up in and what inspired me to write about things in “The Nanny” and everything else. I always play women who come from Queens, so it definitely left its imprint. It was a good place to come from.
My now gay ex-husband and I are being honored at a major GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders) event in Dallas, Texas, in early December. I would say that the majority of my time is spent on health, but a great deal of time is also spent on civil liberties. I really go to the mat for any group that is being marginalized.
The gay community right now is at a very historic juncture. I think they represent what is important about America. We can’t justify marginalizing any group or demographic. And it’s important that we are always mindful of that, and that includes any ethnic minority, as well as kids who are being bullied for being different or anything like that, so civil liberties are very important to me, and arts and education are very important to me, as well.
How do you feel about the way dollars are being allocated in the fight against cancer? Are we on the right path?
I think we need to put more emphasis on prevention. I think we put far too much emphasis on research for a cure?
Do you really believe that up to 90% of all cancers are environmentally related?
Yes. Around 90%, a little more or a little less, depending on the disease, is environmentally stimulated. For me, trying to find a cure is a little like closing the barn door after the horses get away. Let’s not get cancer in the first place. How’s that for a cure? Let’s identify what’s causing the cancers and eliminate them. We are bombarded each and every day with a cacophony of carcinogens. And it’s not one thing, it’s myriad things that are wreaking havoc with our immune and endocrine system. These are the things that we need to start addressing. At the end of the day, we have to own that we may have to make some different choices in how we live our daily lives.
The 20th Century and the industrial revolution really infused a great deal of chemicals on all of us, from what we eat to what we put on our skin to what we surround ourselves with. When I walked in here and saw that this room [at the Convention Center] was windowless and looked at all this new stuff [sofa], all I could think of was the off-gassing. Eventually, we’ll all think about that (Someone in the room said, “Open up the door.”) I’m sure that this [the sofa on which she was sitting] is covered with flame-retardant.
We at Cancer Schmancer are promoting our big prevention campaign, which is “Detox your home.” We intend to make “Detox Your Home,” the “Don’t Drink and Drive of the 21st Century.”
Right now, are you at the best point in your life?
I feel like I am. I just turned 56. I love my life. I love this new lifestyle I’m living. It’s fun. It’s a new leaf. It’s something you can engage the whole family in. It makes me feel so much better. I’m in the beginning stages of being in love with a new person. It is probably the most mature, joyful and wonderful adult relationship I’ve ever had. And that’s because I’m ready for that.