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'Cancer Schmancer'

Comedian Drescher takes a candid look at illness in new book

By Mike McDaniel

Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON -- The title, "Cancer Schmancer," is a clue that Fran Drescher's new book contains pain as well as humor. What the title doesn't reveal is how unsparing she is with the details.

Since we last saw her as the nasal-voiced star of CBS' "The Nanny," Drescher lost her show, divorced her high-school sweetheart and endured uterine cancer.

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Her book unflinchingly reveals her pain and suffering, including the gory details of her illness -- her fight with doctors, who took so long to diagnosis her disease; the effects of a radical hysterectomy; the fear of sex after such an ordeal.

In the hands of someone else, the book would be unbearably sad. But in the hands of a comedian with writing talent (her first book, "Enter Whining," was a best seller), "Cancer Schmancer" (Warner Books, $24.95) reads like the diary of a best friend, complete with the funny bits.

"It's really laugh-out-loud at times," said Drescher, in Houston recently to promote her book and visit University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where she is a patient advocate. "Side by side with grief lies joy. Sometimes it's good to write things down and find the humor in them. That's what I did with the book. I found it very therapeutic."

A testament to her long ordeal is inadvertently revealed when she says the book went through several drafts.

"The first version of the book was a lot of facts and not as much humor. I think I got out a lot of anger, rage and frustration. Then when I went back, I put in more of my pain, my fear. Then I rewrote it again, and I twisted it all in a way that I can see some of the experiences -- nurses that hated each other and were fighting every step of the way; my parents, and they're always very funny; me saving my cousin Susan with the Heimlich maneuver not a week after my surgery. There are silver linings to things, no matter how awful. I think we have to figure out what the life lesson is in something terrible."

The book is also a cautionary tale. She does not want what happened to her to happen to you.

Sometimes hooves are zebras

For a long while, doctors were convinced Drescher did not have cancer. Her pain was caused by something else, they said.

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"They try and treat you for the simplest thing first," she said. "It's like my therapist says: When you hear hooves, don't assume they're zebras."

But sometimes hooves are zebras.

For two years, Drescher's cancer was not diagnosed. And yet her abdominal cramps, mood swings and leg pain continued. The actress, 44, was told she might be going through early menopause, that she had irritable bowel syndrome, that something was wrong with her menstrual cycle, that it was a stomach thing.

Her book is not a diatribe against the medical community but rather a reaffirmation of life. It's also Drescher's highly visible, highly personal way to talk about a disease "down there," one people aren't comfortable discussing.

"I think it's time for people to come out of the closet when it comes to illness -- cancer, in particular," she said. "I can't tell you how many people have said how much the book has helped them, simply by encouraging people to go to the doctor, get second opinions and not be intimidated.

"I write a whole chapter about what it's like to have sex after a radical hysterectomy. You know what? It's going to help a lot of women -- and men -- to read that and know that you can have a healthy, normal sex life and not be afraid to get on with it. You're still a woman, and your man won't know the difference."

The book is a quick read that reveals Drescher's new relationship with a man, "John," who is 16 years her junior. We also learn she's re-established ties with her ex-husband, Peter Jacobson, who was co-executive producer of "The Nanny."

"We weren't speaking to each other for about a year," she said. "I wanted to, but he found it difficult. Then, when he found out I had the cancer, all the anger dissipated, and all that was left was the love." They are friends now, "and it is beautiful."

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She is straightforward when asked if the stork has passed her by.

"I'll never have children," she said. "Having a radical hysterectomy without any children is a bitter pill to swallow. I fortunately had my wits about me when I was told that was going to be my fate," and she had her ovaries, which were disease-free, frozen. She's looking at the surrogate route, but if that's not successful, she'd "absolutely" consider adoption.

Connecting with patients

While in Houston, she visited patients at M.D. Anderson.

"As soon as I start talking to them, they start talking to me. They easily cry because they haven't let it out. You have to let it out. That's one thing my therapist taught me: Cry, feel your pain, tell everybody you're not in a good place -- you're scared, you're frightened, and this isn't easy.

"I heard my boyfriend on the phone right after the operation. He was talking to a friend, and I heard him say, 'We're fine. We're great.' And when he hung up the phone, I said, 'Why did you say that? We're not fine. We're not great. We're in hell over here.'

"You have to open up to your friends. Otherwise, what are friends for? Let them support you."

And what about her career? Her diagnosis came when she was making a pilot for MTV, a Gen-X version of "The Odd Couple." Now she has another MTV project, about internationally traveling young people.

Recently, she won the part of Jacqueline Susann for a theatrical version of "Valley of the Dolls." She will star opposite F. Murray Abraham in her Broadway debut.

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