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S. Epatha Merkerson

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 Americans.

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

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