"I was in such crisis, and feeling feelings that I never really allowed myself [to feel]," Fran Drescher tells PEOPLE

After years of dealing with a secret, unimaginable pain, Fran Drescher says she’s finally found inner peace.

In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, the actress, 62, opens up about discovering purpose through her painful past, which included a terrifying rape in 1985, a very public divorce from her husband of 21 years, Peter Marc Jacobson, in 1999 (after which he publicly revealed he is gay), and a uterine cancer diagnosis in 2000.

Before finding success on The Nanny in 1993, a 28-year-old Drescher and a friend were raped at gunpoint, while Jacobson, then already Drescher’s husband of seven years, was forced to watch.

“After the rape, my friends knew, but I couldn’t even call my parents and tell them,” explains Drescher, who says she didn’t want to be the cause of any “additional stress” for her parents. “I had my sister tell them.”

  • For more from Fran Drescher, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

From there, Drescher and Jacobson’s marriage spiraled over the course of the next 14 years.

“I wasn’t feeling as happy as I thought I’d feel with money, and fame, and creative control,” she says. “Peter started to have control issues that I found somewhat suffocating, and only in hindsight, do we now understand that he was working so hard to control his authentic self, his true orientation.”

Fran Drescher
| Credit: Christian Witkin

Two years after the marriage ended, Jacobson told Drescher he is gay. However, the duo remain close friends to this day.

“I now lovingly refer to Peter as my gay ex-husband,” says the Indebted actress.

Drescher, who met Jacobson in high school, says leaving the relationship was like “walking through fire.”

“I had never done anything for myself that was against the will of somebody else that I cared about,” she says. “And that was part of my problem. I kind of had a backseat in my own life. I was making everybody else happy, but not really myself.”

The pain didn’t stop there, though.

One year after her divorce was finalized, Drescher was diagnosed with uterine cancer — a diagnosis that required an immediate, radical hysterectomy.

Fran Drescher
| Credit: Christian Witkin

But Drescher says her diagnosis was an “opportunity” to break through her people-pleaser mentality.

“I couldn’t do it alone,” she says. “It opened me up to realizing that helping and supporting and advising other people, it gives you a false sense that you have your s— together. But that’s really the distraction of it all.”

Through it all, Drescher says she was able to “gain a lot of clarity” in therapy.

“I was in such crisis, and feeling feelings that I never really allowed myself, and saying out loud, things that I felt guilty about just thinking, for my growth as a human being,” she says. “Now I’m not really obsessed with being the best, most needless, ever-there caregiver. Turning pain into purpose pivots you back into the driver’s seat.”

Indebted premieres Feb. 6 at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC.