When actress Fran Drescher got her first dog, Chester, the love he brought her went beyond her greatest expectations. In fact, the energetic little Pomeranian would play a critical role in one of the most difficult periods of her life. Fran wanted a dog from the time she was a little girl, but her parents always turned her down. “They said I could get a dog when I was married,” she says. When she met Chester, it was love at first sight. “We went and got him, and the minute we paid, he started barking, and he never stopped for 19 years.”
Chester became a co-worker as well as a companion. Over the years, he co-starred with Fran in several episodes of The Nanny, where he played the dog belonging to her rival, C.C. Babcock. Prior to the television series, he also appeared with her in the movie Cadillac Man.
Fran says it was great working with her perky canine. “He was a real star. He always worked the camera, he knew his character, he knew his lines. He was a real professional.”
The Nanny ran from 1993 to 1999. Towards the end of its run, Fran was plagued with health problems that had her bouncing between eight doctors, none of whom could pinpoint the problem. Finally, in 2000, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and went through a radical hysterectomy. It was then she discovered the amazing healing power of dogs.
“You know, an animal is a very important thing to have in the middle of the night, when you don’t have the activities of the day to distract you from your imagination and fear begins to set in,” she says. “It’s hard to sleep, but then you have this little creature who is innocent and so present in the moment. I recommend that all people going through something get an animal, if only so you have something to hold on to in the middle of the night.”
Fran beat her cancer and went on to found Cancer Schmancer (cancerschmancer.org), a movement dedicated to the early diagnosis of women’s cancers so they can be treated while still in their initial stages.
Unfortunately, another tragedy struck Fran in 2000. Even though her surgery was successful, and Chester was there to support her through the most trying time, the little dog died that same year.
“Chester left a hole in my life the size of the Grand Canyon,” Fran says. “I waited like six months, but the pain of the loss was excruciating. I realized I needed something to love that was all about today and tomorrow, and nothing about yesterday. So that was when I started my search for some little dog that could start the beginning of my next chapter with me.”
That next dog was Esther, another Pomeranian, who eased some of the pain of Fran’s loss. Ironically, the actress says Esther’s as different from Chester as night is from day.
“He was a male, she is a female. She was very good about being housebroken, while he peed on everything. He barked incessantly and had real control issues,” Fran says. “She is very mellow and only barks when she really wants something – not because she’s anxious or excited or trying to control the room. You know, she’s more independent. She’s not as needy as he was.”
Like Chester before her, Esther has a knack for acting. She appeared with Fran in the series Living With Fran from 2005 to 2006, and is currently a regular on Happily Divorced.
Although losing Chester was hard, especially since he helped Fran through such a rocky period, she’s glad she got Esther and recommends getting a new dog, once you’re ready, after losing an animal. “I just think life is so much more fulfilling when you share it with an animal, so I think you should feel your pain, but then move on.
“Also know that part of the reason dogs don’t live as long as people do, even though they’re man’s best friend, is to teach us the valuable lesson that there’s love after love. You can love one animal completely and then open your heart to another. It may take a little while to get to a place where you have that kind of bond, but it’s a good lesson to learn because in life we do lose things we love. Letting go, while always holding a place in your heart for that other love, and then finding a place for a new one, is a very important life lesson.
Cancer and canine healing
Fran’s experience with Chester helping her beat a serious illness is not a ﬂuke. It’s echoed every day by other dog people and patients who meet canines in therapy programs. Some major medical institutions even use dogs as a regular part of their treatment regime.
The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has had a therapy dog program for cancer patients in place since 2007. It currently has 20 canines available to meet with patients. According to the institution, some of the beneﬁts of interacting with dogs while undergoing cancer treatment include lowered anxiety, emotional support, a higher comfort level with the human treatment team, and less need for pain medication.
The healing power of dogs has even attracted the attention of Pﬁzer, who has partnered with the Good Dog Foundation. The latter has a program that brings therapy dogs to patients at Beth Israel Medical Center, to study the concrete effects of canine interaction. Pﬁzer is also working with the American Humane Association on a similar study which is looking at the effects of therapy dogs on children going through cancer treatment. This study involves multiple health facilities and 150 pediatric oncology patients.