S. Epatha Merkerson Crusades Against Smoking
Law & Order actress sounds the alarm on the dangers of tobacco and the grim reality of lung cancer.
The devastating effects of lung
cancer are never too far from S. Epatha Merkerson's heart and mind.
Two of her closest friends died from the disease. And in "nothing short of
a miracle," a sister beat the grim statistics -- roughly 85% die within
five years -- after a scare in the 1990s.
A former smoker, Merkerson quit a
few years ago after a 23-year addiction, but her best friend, Yvette
Hawkins, never had the chance. She was diagnosed on March 20, 1995, and by
April 10 she was dead. "I'd never seen anyone die before, and I remember
taking her clothes from the hospital and there was a cigarette in her
pocket," Merkerson says. "It's one of the lasting images in my mind --
she never got to smoke that last cigarette."
Kicking the habit took years for the Law & Order actress, who
spent a decade trying "everything from the sublime to the ridiculous."
Finally, one day -- Saturday, Feb. 4, 1996, to be exact -- she quit for good.
"I was one of those people who lit a cigarette before I put my feet on the
floor in the morning," she says. "Then, literally, I woke up one day
and felt so horrible I thought, here it is -- this is the day." She chucked
her cigarettes in the trash and never looked back.
Within a year of quitting the actress turned activist joined the Campaign
for Tobacco-Free Kids' crusade and, more recently, CancerCare and the American
Lung Association of New York. "I'm an actor, so what I do is run my
mouth," Merkerson says. "It's not like I can get in front of a group
and talk about a CT scan with real authority, but I can talk to young people
about my experience."
Merkerson says she is encouraged by a recent study published in The New
England Journal of Medicine indicating that CT scans can detect lung cancer in its earliest stages. Because her
two-decade-plus habit makes Merkerson a potential candidate, she is also
considering getting the scan.
The real joy in her advocacy, however, lies in carrying on her friends'
legacies. "It's a way to keep their spirits alive," Merkerson says.
"More than anything, I just really miss my friends."
Published January 2007.