It was 15 years ago when actress, comedian, producer and activist Fran Drescher (TV’s The Nanny) received the devastating diagnosis: “You have uterine cancer.”
In the wake of that scary news and her recovery, and in addition to her successful acting and producing careers, Drescher started the Cancer Schmancer Movement (based on her New York Times bestselling book of the same name). Her organization advocates for early screenings to increase cancer survivor rates. She is an instrumental voice in getting legislation passed on cancer education and is the U.S. State Department’s special envoy on women’s health. She is also a strong champion for caregivers caring for themselves as much as for those they love.
I recently talked with Drescher about why we must become empowered and educated about our own health, and asked her for advice from her perspectives as both a patient and as a supporter of caregivers. Here are her three tips:
Tip No. 1: Survivors need caregiving partners.
Drescher understands the role of the patient and the caregiver better than most. Her journey as a cancer patient fighting to become a survivor taught her why the role of the caregiver was essential to her ultimate health victory.
“You need a posse of people around you who understand how to support you and help you fight the good fight,” Drescher said. “But ultimately there emerges one champion, that person who can calm you down, who can ask the doctors important questions when you are in an emotionally overwhelmed state, who can take notes on how to spell the medications being prescribed and list all the treatment options. Those are all things you are unable to do because you are lying in a doctor’s office or hospital bed with that voice in your head saying ‘Why me? Why me?’ over and over. This isn’t the time to make decisions, so someone needs to have all the information you can digest later when you are ready to deal with it.”
Drescher says caregivers are allies especially in a hospital setting. Her mantra about hospital stays: “They can kill you as sure as they can cure you.” It’s important, Drescher notes, that when you are the caregiver for a loved one the hospital staff sees the unity and strength in your caregiving partnership.
You need a posse of people around you who understand how to support you and help you fight the good fight.
— Fran Drescher
“Let the hospital staff know your caregiver role,” Drescher says. “You are the soldier on the front line helping your loved one win this battle – and you are not to be ignored.”
Tip No. 2: Patients and caregivers don’t have superpowers, but they can be empowered.
Drescher says in her case, and in the conversations she’s had with thousands of cancer patients and family caregivers, she has learned that patients and caregivers have to get out of their own way and understand their need to ask for help.
From the patient’s perspective, feeling vulnerable after a serious diagnosis can either make you shut down to family and friends or become overly dependent. In Drescher’s case, it took time to realize she could not control her cancer and would need help to fight it. Her biggest concern was telling her older parents, since she didn’t want to worry them. But when she let everyone into her battle, instead of feeling powerless, Drescher became empowered.
For caregivers, Drescher’s advice is simple: Don’t ignore your own fears and frustrations. Drescher says her heart goes out to the caregivers; in some ways, she believes, their job is tougher than the patient’s.
“You are going to go through a difficult time but you have to be strong for your loved one, and that can be a real challenge,” Drescher says. “However, take the time to go into another room or outside and have your primal scream, get it out — just don’t melt down in front of the person who needs you to be strong and caring.”
Drescher says the ray of hope is that cancer and other chronic illnesses create a community of caregivers. You become a caregiver to the person with the illness and, in turn, as a caregiver you need to turn to people who can care for you — those who can understand your emotional fragility, keep you motivated and lend a helping hand or a heartfelt hug when needed.
Tip No. 3: Caregiving is a master’s degree in health.
When you’re a caregiver, as much as you begin to educate yourself about your loved one’s illness, you must also understand what stress, depression, anxiety and other emotions are doing to your own health.
As a national advocate on becoming a “medical consumer,” Drescher talks about making health education our No. 1 priority. She says caregivers need to understand cortisol levels and how this hormonal release impacts immunity.
In addition, Drescher’s Cancer Schmancer website is dedicated to helping visitors learn about probiotics, antioxidants, GMOs and other nutritional elements that affect how our bodies operate, as well as recommendations on how to “detox your home” from deadly cleansers and products. She believes chronic illness prevention starts with eliminating causation.
Drescher says she also cannot overstate the importance of mental and emotional strength, which becomes even more important when you become a caregiver. “You are allowed to be disappointed, fearful of maybe one day being alone, frustrated that this diagnosis has happened and rocked your world — those are not selfish feelings, but you must learn how to deal with them before they take you down,” she advises.
Finding group therapy or support, taking walks in nature, cleansing your soul, clearing your mind of negative noise — these are not selfish acts, but essential ones, according to Drescher.
As Drescher told me: “Sometimes the best gifts come in the ugliest packages.”