S. Epatha Merkerson
is most often recognized for her role as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on
NBC's hit drama "Law & Order," where she is working on her ninth season.
Her talent has won critical acclaim in theater, television, and film.
Her awards include a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for Best Actress for
her performance in the 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Piano Lesson";
a 1991 Obie Award for work in the Young Playwrights Festivals' production
of "I'm Not Stupid"; and a 1999 Helen Hayes Award for her role in "The
Old Settler." Merkerson also appeared regularly on the series "Peewee's
Playhouse," where she played "Reba, The Mail Lady."
Now Merkerson is taking
on a new role - that of an advocate and spokesperson for the It's Time
to Focus on Lung Cancer educational campaign. Raising awareness of
lung cancer is a personal concern for Merkerson, whose two best friends
died of the disease. Through caring for them throughout their diagnosis
and treatment, Merkerson learned about the difficulties facing those with
lung cancer. She aims to empower those at risk by encouraging early detection
and providing support, and stresses that we should not blame those who
have lung cancer.
We Don't Have the Right to Remain Silent
About Lung Cancer
As police lieutenant Anita Van Buren on NBC's "Law & Order," my television
role is to help fight crime, but off camera, my role is to help fight a different
battle - lung cancer.
This is an issue close to my heart. Several years ago, two of my best friends,
both smokers for many years, died after being diagnosed with late stage lung
cancer. One received radiation and chemotherapy for a short time, but the other
died soon after being diagnosed. I helped them both through their illness by
taking them to treatments and providing them with a support system. Seeing
what they went through made me realize how serious lung cancer is, especially
if it is diagnosed in the late stages. I also witnessed firsthand the feelings
of blame and guilt that often accompany this disease.
What many people do not realize is that lung cancer is the number one cancer
killer in America. It claims more lives than breast, prostate, and colorectal
cancers combined. I was stunned when I first heard this statistic.
Like most people I know, I had no idea that lung cancer was such a huge threat.
I was even more shocked to learn that rates are especially high for women and
African Americans. While overall cancer rates are declining, lung cancer rates
among women continue to rise. Since 1987, more women have died each year of
lung cancer than breast cancer. This year, it is estimated that approximately
67,300 women will die from lung cancer and 40,200 women will die from breast
cancer. Lung cancer accounts for 14 percent of all cancer diagnoses among African
Despite these statistics, lung cancer does not receive the media coverage and
attention it deserves, which has resulted in poor fundraising efforts and little
publicity. Patients feel they are treated differently than people with other
cancers. They feel they are often blamed for their disease since most lung
cancer cases are smoking-related, yet 10 percent of lung cancer patients have
never smoked. Even many medical professionals believe people with lung cancer
are often stigmatized, as if they brought the disease on themselves. Knowing
that one of my friends had quit smoking six years before I had helped me realize
how much I am still at risk for lung cancer. Cigarettes had a powerful hold
over me for 23 years. I tried several times to quit smoking, but was unsuccessful
until one morning I woke up feeling like an elephant was standing on my chest.
I decided it was time to quit for good.
As an African American women who smoked for many years, I am in the high risk
category for developing lung cancer, which is one reason I feel compelled to
help spread the word that early detection and prevention are the keys to successfully
fighting this disease. I want to let others know that if you have smoked, you
are at risk. And if you are diagnosed, you are not to blame.
I am urging everyone to learn more about lung cancer and get advice and support
from experts. To spread the word and decrease the stigma surrounding lung cancer
patients, the It's Time to Focus on Lung Cancer campaign recently
launched a Web site - www.lungcancer.org
- for patients, loved ones, and health care professionals. This comprehensive
site provides up-to-date information about lung cancer risks, detection, treatments,
support resources, and even offers an online Lung Cancer Profile to help you
assess your risk of developing this disease. The campaign also sponsors the
Lung Cancer Toll-Free Information Line at 1-877-646-LUNG (1-877-646-5864),
which is answered by cancer social workers and offers free counseling and support
for patients, those at risk, and their loved ones.
We no longer have the right to remain silent about lung cancer! We have to
arm ourselves with knowledge, learn our risk, and support people living with
the disease -- not blame them.
For information on quitting smoking, click here.
Created: 11/30/2001  - S. Epatha Merkerson