National Press Club

Fran Drescher's Powerful Role: Health Advocate for Women

April 15, 2009 | By Hope Katz Gibbs

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I am not glad that I got cancer, but I am better for it,” Fran Drescher, the award-winning actress told the luncheon audience Tuesday. Drescher, State Department special envoy for women's health, was in DC to promote her non-profit organization, Cancer Schmancer, which is also the title of her 2003 New York Times best-selling book.

The writer, director, co-producer,and star of the CBS television series "The Nanny," Drescher was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2001. It had taken several years and eight doctors to find the tumor. Because it went undiagnosed for so long, the disease had metastasized to Stage Four, leaving Drescher no alternative but to undergo a radical hysterectomy.

“I was devastated,” Drescher said. “I remember standing in my bathroom after the surgery looking swollen and bruised, and feeling nothing like the Superwoman I had felt I was my whole life. I wished I could have been anyone but me in that moment.”

Not long after, she was having dinner with her cousin Susan, who in mid-sentence began to choke on a piece of chicken.

“I had seen someone choking before in a restaurant, and knew I had to do the Heimlich maneuver,” explained Drescher, who said she stood behind her cousin and pushed on her chest until finally the chicken chunk popped out. “I admit it, I saved her life. But really, she saved mine because at that moment I felt like my Superwoman self again."

The experience gave Drescher the idea to write "Cancer Schmancer," and on the book tour she talked to hundreds of other women who suffered through the drama of years of being misdiagnosed, allowing their cancers to reach nearly terminal late stages.

“I knew that I had to something more than write a book — I had to start a movement,” said Drescher, who soon after founded her Reston, Va.–based organization.

“Eleanor Roosevelt said ‘women are like tea bags. We don’t know how strong we are until we are dipped in hot water.’ It is incredibly true. I realize now that I got famous, and I got cancer, so I could stand here today and try to change lives.”

Since then, Drescher has been instrumental in winning passage of the first Gynecological Cancer Education and Awareness Act. She travels the country and world sharing her message, and truly believes that cancer diagnosed in stage one “is the cure."

That's why, she said, she’s doing everything in her power to encourage every woman to insist on getting all tests necessary to identify if disease is brewing.

“When you get that weird feeling that something inside you just isn’t right, go to the doctor and find out what’s up,” she said. “Find out what tests aren’t on the menu. Do research on the Internet. Ask your friends. You have to be your own medical advocate.”

Drescher said she’s enjoying her new role as an activist and philanthropist, and although she is happy to take the occasional acting role that inspires her, she’s considering running for political office in 2010 or 2012. Her decision, she said, will be determined by where she feels she is most able to impact the future of women’s health issues.

“I want to be part of a movement that shifts the negative paradigm in the world," she said. "I want to be one of the voices that makes sure this is the century of the woman.”