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Fran Drescher Interview by Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD

Throughout history, passion has lead people to do remarkable things and achieve extraordinary heights. An unfettered passion for equality and freedom brought an end to slavery; doctors passionate to find cures for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis teeter on the brink of medical breakthroughs. And behind every great movement, there is a passionate voice—one voice that through persistence, diligence and fortitude becomes a thousand voices speaking for ten thousand more. If Fran Drescher has her way, her voice will be heard by millions and will save countless lives.

Entering into the second season of her new hit comedy Living with Fran, Drescher is finding herself in a familiar position as star and executive producer. While Living’s Fran strikes a strong resemblance to the quick-witted Fran of Drescher’s previous hit, The Nanny, Drescher’s off-screen persona has in some ways metamorphized. After persevering through a bout with cancer, Drescher has developed a newfound sense of purpose as an advocate for women’s gynecologic health care education.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD, recently joined Drescher for lunch at a small Malibu eatery. While Drescher does not easily suppress the executive producer in her—she was quick to find the most temperate table for the unusually warm day—she remains a down-to-earth woman who pleasantly accepted the type of fan recognition that comes with being a Hollywood veteran of more than 25 years. So engrossed in sharing her story that she hardly had time to finish her meal, Drescher discussed her new show, her own experience with endometrial cancer, and the advocacy that has truly become her passion.

Chet Cooper: You had quite a success with The Nanny. How long did the show run?

Fran Drescher: Six seasons.

Cooper: You were the original TV nanny; what do you think of the recent genre of nanny-related reality shows such as Supernanny and Nanny 911?

Drescher: I’m not really into reality shows; personally, I like a scripted show. I’m aware of the reality series, but I’m not a regular viewer.

Cooper: I thought you’d say, “I can take those nannies any day; bring ’em on!”

Drescher: (laughs)

Gillian Friedman, MD: It’s exciting to see that Living with Fran has been picked up for a second season. Tell us about the show.

Drescher: Living with Fran is an older woman/younger man romantic comedy. On the show, I have two kids from a former marriage. My son is actually closer in age to my boyfriend than I am, and I have a teenage daughter who is beginning to go through an incorrigible stage. My ex-husband is played by Charles Shaughnessy, who played [my employer-turned-husband] Mr. Sheffield on The Nanny.

Friedman: How much of the show is based on your own life experiences?

Drescher: Well, for four years I was seriously involved with a man who was 16 years my junior.

Cooper: And he got too old for you?

Drescher: (laughs) It ran its course. Sometimes people come into your life for a season and other times for a lifetime. I believe he came into my life for a reason: to get me through my bout with cancer. Our relationship lasted for two years after that, and then it was time to move on. But there was a lot that came out of that and certainly a lot to draw on creatively.

Friedman: Speaking of your bout with cancer, you undertook a great deal of advocacy when your book Cancer Schmancer came out in 2002. What are some of the things you’re doing now?

Drescher: I’m very active. Being a famous survivor has given a purpose to my life that I really didn’t have before. Although I was always supportive of charities, this is different because I see a real need to improve women’s gynecologic health care. I wrote Cancer Schmancer so that what happened to me wouldn’t happen to other people—it took me two years and eight doctors to get a proper diagnosis. When I went on my book tour, I realized that misdiagnosis happens to tens of thousands of women and men. The way people are diagnosed, the tests offered, the knowledge patients have and the control they take of their bodies all need to be improved. I feel like a whistle-blower. I got famous, I got cancer and I lived to talk about it.

Friedman: How do you think things can be improved?

Drescher: I’m presently trying to push a bill through in Washington that was called Johanna’s Law.

Cooper: Was?

Drescher: It’s now been re-named by the Senate as The Gynecologic Cancer Education and Awareness Act or Johanna’s Law, which is obviously clearer for members of the House and Senate to take a position on. I’m very excited about the progress it’s making, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will in fact be turned into law.

Friedman: What are some of the most important provisions of the bill?

Drescher: It’s an education-based bill targeted at women and their physicians. One goal is to teach what the early warning symptoms of gynecologic cancer are and what tests are available, so women can detect cancer when it’s most curable. That’s the first step; if women know how to recognize the earliest warning symptoms, they have a much better fighting chance. Unfortunately, the early symptoms tend to mimic far more benign illnesses, and the medical community is pressured by big-business insurance companies to use the least expensive diagnostic testing. So most doctors ascribe to the philosophy, “If you hear hooves galloping, don’t look for a zebra. It’s probably a horse.” But that kind of thinking is killing us. Eighty percent of women with ovarian cancer will find out in the late stages, and 70 percent of them will die.

Friedman: The problems of early detection are a significant dilemma.

Drescher: And many, many of those late-stage cases were misdiagnosed initially as irritable bowel syndrome because the symptoms are similar in the earliest stages. Cancer screening tests have to become more a part of basic health care. Plus I am a big believer in the transvaginal ultrasound, which is the equivalent of putting a pair of eyes on the end of a doctor’s fingertips. I cannot believe that the uterus and the ovaries are left to be diagnosed blindly with a manual pelvic exam. But insurance companies are afraid that if we’re offered ultrasound as part of our basic gynecologic health care, it’s going to open a Pandora’s box. It’s a diagnostic tool—not a cancer screening tool—and women get so many problems that could be benign, it would create a domino effect of subsequent testing to see what each problem is. To my mind, it allows a patient and her doctor to see any abnormality, any thickening, and watch to see if it’s growing.

Going to the gynecologist and simply getting a Pap test—and often the wrong Pap test, because everybody should be getting a Pap with DNA testing, not the regular Pap that’s presently offered—is the equivalent of going to the dentist and having him look at only one-third of your teeth. We have to start questioning the care we’re getting. Right now I’m working to start a new organization called WOMB: Women Organized for Medical Breakthroughs. I am on a rampage, really, to start a movement in this country to change the thinking, to change legislation, to change insurance policies and to get unions to demand for their women different types of health insurance policies. I hope to get a group of female CEOs to take an interest and write a new kind of policy with a health insurance company that’s willing to take this first step. I want to speak at colleges and high schools across the country. A hundred years ago women started a suffrage movement to get the right to vote, and now we have to start a movement to save our lives. It’s that serious and that necessary.

Friedman: An important point you raised is that if a woman is having symptoms, the testing she needs is not screening, but rather diagnostic testing. Screening, by definition, is testing done in people with no signs of illness, to identify treatable conditions early. But once someone has symptoms, it’s a completely different ballgame—symptoms put the person in a higher risk group for serious illness, and it is important for her to pursue a different level of testing for diagnostic purposes. However, a doctor is never going to be able to ask about every symptom. Women have to know themselves what the early symptoms of gynecologic cancers are so they can alert their doctors and ask for testing.

Drescher: Exactly. If a woman has staining between her periods, that’s it! Endometrial biopsy. Now, it might end up that you’re peri-menopausal, which is what I was misdiagnosed as being for two years. I was placed on four different hormone replacement therapies, and all the while I had cancer and the hormones were exacerbating that cancer. I want to have a tool available to women—a cheat sheet, a bookmark, anything that describes symptoms. You can’t keep your head in the sand because the day will come when you can’t deny what’s happening to you. You feel it. You know. If I knew then what I know now, when doctor number one said I was too young for a D&C [dilatation and curettage, a scraping of the lining of the uterus] I would have said, “Wait a minute. Let’s do the D&C. Let’s eliminate the possibility that I have uterine cancer before we start going down the road of hormone replacement therapy.” It’s the zebra and the horse…Continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Fran Drescher issue include Letter From The Editor, The Cruise Controversy, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Baseball for Lawyers; Headlines: Lung cancer, MS, Harry Potter, Hearing Loss; Toys Theater: Russian Performers Who Are Deaf; Hearing Loss: Role Models in Medicine; NFB-Newsline: Phone Delivery; Recipes: Spice Up Your Life; Endometrial Cancer: What All Women Should Know; Employment: On the Road With Ticket To Work; Sixth Annual Event: World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences... subscribe

More excerpts from the Fran Drescher issue: (2005)

André Sobel River of Life Foundation

The World at His Feet: Mark Goffeney

Colorado Travel

Senator Grassley - Letter to ABILITY readers

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