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Law & Order detective fights off-screen for another kind of special victim

S. Epatha Merkerson’s Lt. Van Buren solves crime onscreen. Off-camera, the actor fights to increase lung cancer education and smoking awareness.

By Tammy Dotts

Staff Writer

December 2003

After watching her sister beat lung cancer and losing two good friends to the disease, actress S. Epatha Merkerson decided she needed to share what she had learned.

“Lung cancer became very close to me for a number of reasons,” said Merkerson, who plays Lt. Anita Van Buren on NBC’s Law & Order. “And when you learn something, you don’t keep it, you pass it on.

“Look what happened to two beautiful women who should still be vibrant and living. Look what happened to my sister who is still here and getting strong,” she said.

A former smoker herself, Merkerson was eager to take on a new role as an advocate and spokesperson. “It’s a good bandwagon to be on,” she told Hem/Onc Today from her dressing room on the set. “I really do this in honor of my friends who did not make it but also in honor of my sister who is still with me.”

“If you don’t share knowledge, then you’re just one really smart person doing nothing.”

— S. Epatha Merkerson

Speaking out

That her sister beat lung cancer was a factor in Merkerson’s decision to improve awareness of the disease. “Most people don’t survive lung cancer because they find out too late that they have the disease,” she said. “My sister was lucky, and people need to know that lung cancer [if discovered early enough] does not have to be a death sentence.”

As part of Lung Cancer Awareness Week, which ran Nov. 18-22, Merkerson encouraged people to learn the signs of lung cancer and follow up with their doctors when something seems off.

Merkerson said her sister felt something was wrong and went to the doctor early enough that the disease could be treated. “Four years after surgery, she’s walking around. She’s got half a lung, but she’s breathing, and she’s gaining weight, and she’s got her color back,” she said.

She said family members and friends of patients with lung cancer have an important job.

When her sister was diagnosed, Merkerson said the two of them would spend hours looking at paperwork and at information online to learn about the disease and what to expect from treatment.

“Knowledge is power,” she said. “That’s a true thing. It’s old, and it’s tried, and it’s true. As long as you’re knowledgeable, you can aid your sibling or parent or friend in finding information that they need for health care.”

‘Don’t sit stupid’

Passing on knowledge is second-nature to Merkerson. The youngest of five children, Merkerson grew up during the civil rights movement. Her mother stressed the importance of education.

“She knew the importance of what it would do for us in the future to be educated people in the world,” Merkerson said. “My mother taught me that knowledge does no good if you’re not sharing it with other people.

“She used to always say ‘don’t sit stupid in your house.’ If you don’t share knowledge, then you’re just one really smart person doing nothing. But if you’re sharing it, then it becomes the next person’s responsibility to pass it on. Get out, get the information, and pass it along. Bring somebody with you,” she said.

She encouraged people to get out in their communities. “Getting involved with the Lung Cancer Awareness Week campaign is a wonderful way to do community service,” she said. “You can help get information about the disease out in front of someone’s face. If you can see the information, it just makes it very different, and it allows you to function in a very different and informed way.”

Role model

Merkerson said one good thing about celebrity that requires very little effort is that it allows her to speak out on issues of importance and people will listen.

She said she didn’t set out to be a role model and doesn’t always consider herself as one, adding, however, that “there are worse things to be.”

She saw lung cancer as something in which she could be involved in two ways, as a former smoker and as a black woman.

“Black women have a high risk of lung cancer,” she said. “The statistics are higher among black women.

“Some little young black girl may watch a movie and see someone smoking and think it’s cool,” she said. “But if two days ago she read an article that said the woman from Law & Order said this, she has a choice and information to make that choice.”

Merkerson made a choice to never smoke on camera, although the Tony-nominated actress has smoked on stage. “Before I quit smoking, I had done quite a few things on television and a couple on film. For some reason, I never wanted to see myself smoking,” she said.

“I always knew I was going to quit. I didn’t want to turn on the TV, channel surf and hit my picture with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth.”

Dealing with addiction

Merkerson smoked for 23 years. This February, she will have 10 years as a non-smoker.

“I’ve turned into that person I used to hate. And good for me,” she said. “A lot of people, especially smokers, they hate ex-smokers that talk to them. I remember.”

Lung cancer is set apart from other cancers because it’s easy for people to say it could be prevented if only the patient had stopped smoking. “You know what,” Merkerson said, “let me see you drop an addiction. Let me see you quit it overnight.”

Merkerson eventually quit cold turkey, but only after 10 years of hypnosis, group therapy and trying everything from the ridiculous to the sublime, she said.

“I’ve spent money on computers that would beep when I could have a cigarette, and they never beeped quick enough,” she laughed.

Cigarette smoking is an addiction. “We need to learn to look at it that way and accept it as an illness in our families,” she said.

Although not all cases of lung cancer are smoking related, those that are can be prevented, but people have to know how, she said. Lung Cancer Awareness Week and www.lungcancer.org, both sponsored by the “It’s Time to Focus on Lung Cancer” campaign, provide good information about disease prevention and provide support for patients and their loved ones and those at risk.

Getting support

“It’s important to have people support you,” Merkerson said. When she started on Law & Order in 1993, she was still a smoker. Fellow cast member Jerry Orbach was a former smoker and helped Merkerson overcome her addiction.

“I’d look at him and tell him I wanted a cigarette,” Merkerson recalled. “He would always say ‘You’re doing good, kid’ and get me a glass of water instead of a cigarette. He’d make an announcement on the set ‘Epatha’s doing great.’

“He was always there for me,” she said. Merkerson quit smoking in February 1994 and passed on the support to her sister.

“With my sister, I just stuck my foot in. A year after her surgery, she was still smoking,” she said.

When her sister came to visit, Merkerson staged an intervention. No smoking in the house or yard. She took some of her sister’s clothes and kept them in a cedar closet during the visit.

“When she left, she could smell herself because the clothes that came out of the cedar closet had been cleansed of that nicotine smell,” Merkerson said. “I think that was another reason she managed to quit smoking — she’s so vain. She didn’t realize she was walking around funky.”

For more information:

Find information about Lung Cancer Awareness Week at www.lungcancer.org

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