Why Fran Drescher's cancer misdiagnosis is part of a larger problem in medicine

Dec 8, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Image: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

It took two years and eight doctors before Fran Drescher was correctly diagnosed with uterine cancer. The star of the hit CBS sitcom The Nanny opened up about her medical challenges on Wednesday at the Chasing Cancer Summit in Washington, D.C., noting that she was at the gynecologist’s office so much that she “got in the stirrups more times than Roy Rogers.”

Unfortunately, the Cancer Schmancer Foundation creator’s experience with misdiagnosis isn’t uncommon — especially for women. This is the case for a number of reasons.

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First, medical diagnosis and treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all. Just because someone doesn’t fit the specific demographics associated with a certain disease doesn’t mean they don’t have it. In Drescher’s case, people who get uterine cancer tend to be postmenopausal or obese, but she was neither. To make matters worse, she was prescribed hormone therapy containing estrogen for what doctors thought was early menopause, which only made her symptoms worse.

"We have a medical philosophy that if you hear hooves galloping, don’t look for a zebra, it’s probably a horse,” she said in a video posted by The Washington Post. “But if you happen to be a zebra you are going to slip through the cracks.”

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Second, medical research has always had a gender bias. Studies are designed and conducted based on diagnosing and treating men (for conditions that affect any gender), while studies focusing on women’s health tend to receive less attention and funding.

Also, doctors sometimes diagnose women with psychiatric illnesses, dismissing physical symptoms as part of depression or anxiety, rather than acknowledging the possibility that they could be part of a larger condition. Or, you know, they think women are exaggerating the pain and discomfort because of their emotional issues or looking for attention.

Drescher was eventually diagnosed and then properly treated when her eighth doctor finally performed a biopsy, which indicated that she was in the early stages of uterine cancer – the fourth most common cancer in women in the U.S.

More: Actress Fran Drescher has turned vegan and gluten-free

So what can women — particularly those without Drescher’s financial resources — do to avoid being misdiagnosed? She suggests taking a more active role in your medical treatment.

"Nobody knows your body better than you," Drescher told USA Today. "Remember back in the days, you know, way back in the 20th century, when you went to your doctor, listed your symptoms and let them take over from there? Well, those days are over. Now, you have to do your own research too. You have to be more of a partner when you see your physician."

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