Winn Claybaugh Interviews Fran Drescher

Winn Claybaugh is the dean and cofounder of Paul Mitchell Schools and the founder of MASTERS Audio Club. He interviewed Fran Drescher, the award-winning star of The Nanny and Happily Divorced and a 12-year uterine cancer survivor. As the founder and president of the Cancer Schmancer Movement, Fran wants to shift America's focus toward prevention and early detection. Just in time for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Fran demonstrates the knowledge and celebrity power to educate the masses on these topics and more.

Winn You launched a wonderful organization called Cancer Schmancer, mainly out of your own experience of being misdiagnosed. Will you tell your story of what that was all about and what it eventually turned into?

Fran: It took me two years and eight doctors to get a proper diagnosis of uterine cancer. I got in the stirrups more times than Roy Rogers! I ended up, by the grace of God, still being in stage one, so a radical hysterectomy was all that was needed to cure me of the cancer. But the experience put me onto a path that I never imagined I'd be on, and I began to heal emotionally by turning my pain into purpose. I wrote the New York Times bestseller Cancer Schmancer because I didn't want what happened to me to happen to other people. That became the beginning of a life mission that morphed into the Cancer Schmancer Movement. Cancer Schmancer is a three-pronged organization. The first is early detection, because if you catch it on arrival, 95% survival. The second part is prevention, because over 90% of cancer is environmental; if you live a healthier, more toxic-free lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of cancer. The third part is policy change, because the more pressure we can put on our elected officials to protect the nation and our overall health and well-being, the better off we are. Turning pain into purpose is extremely healing, and it helps make sense out of the senseless. Cancer Schmancer is different, it's new, it's optimistic, it's fun, it's exciting, and it invites people into the cancer space in a proactive and confident way that may be different from other cancer organizations.

Winn You challenge people to become partners with their physicians. What do you mean by that?

Fran: All too often, and particularly in the last century, doctors were seen more as gods than people, and people were either intimidated or became kind of infantile around their doctors: whatever they said, goes. But as we know, doctors are very busy people who are often bludgeoned by health insurance companies to go the least expensive route of diagnostic testing. In addition, their malpractice insurance sometimes keeps doctors from devoting as much time as they should. Many of them subscribe to the philosophy, "If you hear hooves galloping, don't look for zebra. It's probably a horse." But if you happen to be a zebra, you're going to start slipping through the cracks and the outcome may not be as good for you. That's what happened to me, except I was lucky enough to have a very slow-growing cancer that was still in the early stages. But women with ovarian cancer who are often misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome may not be so lucky because they don't have a moment to lose.

At Cancer Schmancer, we tell everyone to transform from being a patient into a medical consumer and learn the early whispers of the cancers that may affect you, and the tests that are available, so when you go to the doctor you can be a better partner. Some of the tests you need may not even be on the menu at the doctor's office, so it's important to go in as a medical consumer armed with information and knowledge. Knowledge is power, and you never want to give your doctor power of attorney over your health. I say "power of attorney" because that's the term they use for people who let someone else handle their money. I don't do that with my money, and I'm certainly not going to do that with my body!

When the doctor calls and says you have cancer, at the end of the day, he goes home and has dinner with his family while you go home and eat your heart out with yours. Whose life is it, anyway? It's your life; you've got to take control of the situation. We put more time and energy into the buying, selling, and repairing of our automobiles than we do our own bodies. That's just unconscionable and it has to stop. We're in the 21st century; we have to be more proactive.

Winn You mentioned that people should become less of a patient and more of a medical consumer. Have you found that the medical world is open to that? Do doctors want their "medical consumers" to ask the right questions and challenge them?

Fran: I always say that if your doctor doesn't want to hear what you have to say or doesn't give you the time you feel you need, that's not the right doctor for you. That doctor doesn't deserve to have you as a patient. Doctors are charging top dollar, and you're entitled to feel like you have their undivided attention for as long as you need it. This is also a fault of our medical schools, because I don't think they pay a lot of attention to bedside manner, how to respect the patient, and how to appreciate that the patient knows best what's going on in his or her body. Patients know best what they're feeling and they know when something is wrong. They're not to be dismissed; they're to be listened to. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a great enough emphasis on that as we continue to turn out young doctors into the medical world. I don't think they are given the skill set to deal with patients in a way that invites conversation.

Winn You said that the solution or the hope is in catching cancer in stage one. Are there statistics about how many people have missed that opportunity?

Fran: Yes, there are. Every different cancer has a different statistic. For example, over 80% of women with ovarian cancer will find out in the late stages, and over 70% of them will die. The reason we lose loved ones to cancer is almost always due to late-stage diagnosis, which is unacceptable in a great nation such as ours.

The United States has been determined to be number 37 by the World Health Organization. That's really embarrassing and disgusting, and that's why I have been supporting President Obama in his healthcare program; all the nations that have any kind of nationalized health care are much more prevention in spirit. At the end of the day, it's cheaper not to get sick in the first place. We have been a nation driven by the profit margin of big business, big pharmaceuticals, and big corporate health insurance companies and that has to be reversed. It doesn't work, and it's unsustainable. Do we want to be a nation that lives longer but sick and completely hooked on prescriptive drugs? I say no.

We need to focus on lifestyle change, nutrition, and stress reduction—a complete lifestyle overhaul that has an impact on not only ourselves and our families but on our environment and our overall sense of calm and serenity, which has a huge impact on how stressed we are. When you stress, you compromise your immune system. People think, "Oh, I'm a workhorse, I can just plow through this, no problem. Yeah, everything's falling apart in my life, but I'm just going to keep on trucking." Eventually your body is going to catch up with you because you can't keep going and not stop and replenish and give your body more nutrients.

I tell everybody the more organic you can eat, and the more natural you go in what you clean and garden with, and the more natural skincare products you use, the better off you'll be in the long run. We're working on a policy right now, inspired by our Trash Cancer program, to encourage manufacturers to develop carcinogen-free products. If they can prove, at their own expense through an approved third-party lab, that they have a carcinogen-free product, then they can pay a fee and earn the privilege of putting a carcinogen-free government seal of approval on their labels. That will last for a limited amount of time because standards are constantly changing and as we learn more about the propensity of chemicals that we expose ourselves to every day.

My advice is to err on the side of caution, live as clean a lifestyle as you can, follow TrashCancer.org or CancerSchmancer.org, and take the Check, Choose, and Change Challenge. As you start to replace things in your home—what you clean and garden with, your personal care items, and the foods you eat—start thinking about replacing them with healthier options, and you can effectively begin to reduce your risk of cancer for both you and your family, because over 90% of cancer is environmental and the most toxic place you spend the most time in is your home. We don't have control over a lot of things, but we certainly can control what we bring into our homes.

Winn I've always liked your approach. People study the ill but you're asking why we don't study healthy people and learn from that vantage point.

Fran: Totally. There hasn't been a cure for cancer since Nixon waged the war. The President's Cancer Panel of 2010 came out with a 200-page report that essentially said there is no cure for cancer, it's just going to become more and more prevalent as we continue to inundate ourselves with more and more toxic chemicals and carcinogens. So what is the best way to cure cancer? Well, how about not getting it in the first place? Isn't that the best cure?

Winn What are your goals with Cancer Schmancer and Trash Cancer?

Fran: We're impacting consciousness, people are beginning to change the way they think, and they're waking up. Once you wake up and smell the coffee, it's hard to go back to sleep. We at Cancer Schmancer are sounding the alarm.

At TrashCancer.org you can select a product and see if it's high in carcinogens. Then you can make your own decision to give it up or replace it.

At the end of the day, manufacturers don't want to kill us, they just want to sell us. Through the power of old-fashioned, all-American consumerism, we can get a loud message to them, and in so doing, they will change their formulas. We were very, very active in putting pressure on Johnson & Johnson with their No More Tears Shampoo.

It's designed for babies and yet it was very, very high in formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen, so they changed their formula. That's a great victory for us, but it's also a great victory for the American people, and at the end of the day it's a great victory for Johnson & Johnson because it makes them look good. What they're doing on behalf of their customer is very important; to be a big corporation nowadays has to include philanthropy and taking into consideration what's in the best interest of the consumer, not just what is in the best interest of your shareholders.

Winn How much of your time is divided between your career as an actor and producer and the work you do with Cancer Schmancer as an outspoken advocate of women's issues and cancer?

Fran: I work on both every single day, and one informs the other. I had been encouraged to run for an elected office, but when the opportunity to get back on national television came through, I felt like it was a great platform to reach a lot of different people and spread the message of the things I'm passionate about, including better health for every American, civil liberties, education and arts in education, and of course, ecology. It gives me a chance to really speak out on the greater good, which is my obligation as a celebrity. If you are blessed with celebrity and people actually want you to talk, then it's your obligation to say something meaningful, important, and in the best interest of the greater good.

Winn What's heartbreaking for me about some of these reality shows that are really about nothing, or they're about really terrible things, is not so much that they're offensive but where are the conversations that really matter? People know more about what's happening with the Real Housewives of New Jersey than they know about the movement and the information you're sharing with Cancer Schmancer.

Fran: I think there's room for everything and it's the people's choice. Exercising consumerism is really what it all boils down to, but what we do and what we say and the impact we have socially is quite significant. I have the benefit of being recognizable, so people tell me all the time, "Because of you, I made that doctor's appointment. Because of your organization, I knew to say this, I knew to ask for that, and you saved my life." It's not just me. It's me, it's the organization, it's everything we stand for, and it's all the special interest groups out there fighting the good fight. The United States is the most philanthropic nation on the planet. Nothing is perfect, but at the end of the day, it proves what Jefferson said: that we are the greatest experiment to the civilized world.

Winn I've heard you speak many times. You speak very intelligently, and you're very well informed about the topic of cancer. How much of this knowledge existed before your own misdiagnosis?

Fran: I was often asked to participate in other people's events; I would walk red carpets and give opinions about whatever happened to be relevant in the news that week. I'm not about dissing anyone or being negative or gossipy, but there's always a slant to take about something. I like to be a unifier rather than a divider. Even as a young girl living at home with my parents, I had aspirations to be in politics or be a public speaker as well as a hairdresser, a writer, a producer, and an actress. Lucky for me, I've gotten to do it all! I enjoy my life and I enjoy having so many diverse interests, and I'm grateful that I have an opportunity to explore all of them.

Winn You are a hairdresser?

Fran: I most certainly am. When I started working as a professional actress, it became a little difficult for me to pursue going to college, and yet I wanted to have some kind of a sheepskin as backup in the event that the acting didn't work out. When I felt I needed to drop out of college, I decided to go to beauty culture school because that had always interested me, and it interests me to this day. I'm very involved with my own hair and makeup in all the work I do because I am a cosmetologist. Throughout the years, I have always given haircuts to certain friends and family, and I enjoy it. I usually like doing men more than women, so I always thought if I didn't make it in show business, I would've done a for-men-only haircutting business.

Even if the acting didn't work out, I wanted to be successful. If it looked like I was always going to struggle as an actress, then I would've shifted gears and moved back into hairdressing full speed ahead. When I was going to beauty culture school, Vidal Sassoon was the man. I thought, "I could be like that someday." It's a wonderful field; it's creative and it's like living art, always changing and updating. I'm proud to be part of the cosmetology world, and I support all those people who decide to go into that field.

Winn You mentioned Vidal Sassoon. He spent his last years full-time in philanthropy: making a difference and using his name, his celebrity, and his platform to raise money and awareness and give back. In the world we all live in, we all do what we can do. You've got the voice, the celebrity, and the name; you could pick up the phone and make things happen that it would take some of us a little more work to make that happen, but the message for everybody is you do what you can. Some people are really good at raising money. I remember Donny Osmond saying the first time he went to a Children's Miracle Network Hospital—for which he raises so much money—he was crying in the corner, he wasn't present and available. Some people can show up, change diapers, work with the needy, serve the patients, and do all kinds of things, but they're not good at raising money. Do you have a challenge along those lines for people about doing whatever they can do?

Fran: A lot of people say they don't really know what they want to do. There are so many options and causes out there, so you have to sit quietly, listen to your inner voice, because that's closest to your creator, and think about your life and your loved ones and how has life offered you an opportunity or touched you (possibly in a negative or even painful way) where you might think, "I can do something to help other people who are going through something I went through or my loved one went through. In doing that, not only will it give resonance, meaning, and purpose to my life, but I'll be helping others and making sense out of the senseless."

That's a great way to start—to think about how you've been touched—because nobody leaves this planet unscathed. Look at every experience as an opportunity to grow and become a better person. The opportunity may have already arisen, and you didn't see it as such. As the Buddhists say, people who try to make other people happy are happier than people who try to make themselves happy.