Sonequa Martin-Green says that her mother has always been the strongest woman she knows.
“She’s really a force of nature,” says the Star Trek: Discovery actor. “She used to be an athlete, and when my older sister and I would come home from softball or volleyball practices, we used to have our fun wrestling with her. You could not beat her wrestling! We would always laugh about that. We watched her work all day and then come home and cook and clean and do all of that for us. She’s just a powerhouse.”
So when Vera Martin was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997, her daughters couldn’t imagine anything but a positive outcome. “She was in so much pain, but I always believed she was going to be fine,” says Martin-Green, who was only 12 at the time. “I couldn’t imagine something like that taking her down. Now, in retrospect, I have such a profound sense of gratitude and respect for my mother and sister because they did a lot of work and made a lot of sacrifice to shield me at the time. I didn’t know that’s what they were doing, but I guess that’s why you shield. I just knew that this horrible thing had happened, but that my mother was going to be OK. A lot of it had to do with our faith in God, and a lot of it had to do with our faith in our mother.”
Taking a Stand
Martin successfully overcame colon cancer, but more cancer was in the family’s future. In 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it seemed that no sooner had she beaten that form of the disease, it returned in the form of a slow-growing stomach cancer, diagnosed in 2013.
“Cancer is everywhere in my family,” says Martin-Green, 33. Her older half-sister was treated for breast cancer in 2014, and several other uncles, aunts, and cousins have been affected by the disease as well. “I know that a lot of people have similar stories, and that’s why I chose to get involved with Stand Up To Cancer.”
The nonprofit Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) funds cancer research across institutions and disciplines, encouraging collaboration rather than competition to help accelerate the pace of scientific breakthroughs. Martin-Green first joined forces with the organization in 2016 at a New Orleans event for its Innovative Research Grants, which fund cancer research that might not receive support through more traditional avenues. Since then, she has participated in SU2C’s biennial TV fundraisers, and in early 2018, she taped “Stand Up for Us All,” a public service announcement designed to raise people’s awareness about the importance of participation in clinical trials.
“What appealed to me about Stand Up To Cancer was the unity. There is something so powerful about community, to know there are so many people from so many different disciplines in science coming together, shedding their egos, and combining their research,” she says. “They’re world-changers and they’re doing it all as one, and I’m so honored to support this work.”
After being shielded from the worst of her mother’s first cancer battle, Martin-Green says the second diagnosis came with much more doubt and fear. “It was devastating, and only by God and sheer force of strength and will did she get through it.”
Champion, Cheerleader, Caregiver
Martin-Green has her own regrets about that time. “I had moved from Alabama to New York, I was launching my career, in the middle of shooting a movie and about to get married,” she says. “I did as much as I could, but I couldn’t just pick up and leave. For family members of people who are fighting this, there is such a care/life balance that you have to find. You have to be that caring ear, that shoulder they can lean on, that support system -- and you have to find a way to factor that in with everything else that your life requires of you. I did my best to do that. My family understood that there were things I couldn’t do, but I look back at everything my sister had to take on because she was still in Alabama, and to this day I think about it and want to break down and cry.”
By the time the third cancer diagnosis came, in 2013, Martin-Green was determined that she would be as involved with her mother’s care as possible. “I was crowding!” she laughs. At that point she had been cast in her breakout role as Sasha Williams in The Walking Dead and was filming nearby in Atlanta.
“We were in it to win it,” she says. “I was part of all the decisions and strategies and the doctors’ visits I could make as well. They were able to get it very early. And now my mother is 69 and a three-time survivor.”
Over time, Martin-Green says she’s learned her fair share about how to support loved ones who are facing a cancer diagnosis. “I think there’s a bit of normalization that needs to happen,” she says. “People diagnosed with a disease need to feel championed, they need to feel uplifted, and they need to feel normal. It’s not that they need to be delusional or not understand that it’s the greatest fight of their lives, but they do need to know that they are capable of that fight, and they need to know that the people around them believe that, too.”
She and her sister are very aware of the risks they face themselves. “We know how close it is to us,” she says. “What I have chosen to do is focus on making lifestyle choices. I’m now eating a plant-based diet, and my husband and I are both very diligent about eating clean, whole foods. We have been making lots of changes where our health is concerned for several years now, and we’re improving incrementally.”
A strong family history of cancer can be stressful for both family members who are affected and those who are not, says Sharon Bober, PhD, a senior psychologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “But taking an attitude of ‘we’re all in this together,’ like Sonequa’s family has done, is very empowering. You can give each other the strength and support to take on early detection, screening, and identifying what you and your family members can do to keep yourself well.”
Martin-Green says she still struggles to balance the demands of being an actor/producer, wife, mother, daughter, and caregiver. “Marriage takes everything you have. Being a mother takes everything you have. Your career takes everything you have. And being a caregiver takes everything you have,” she says. “We are octopuses as women! I have by no means mastered it. There is a constant yearning within me to do more. To be more and to be more engaged. And to be more available and more present and more mindful.”
Martin-Green often de-stresses by enjoying movie marathons with her husband, actor and writer Kenric Green, whom she first met when both were auditioning for a play in New Jersey. (He later joined the Walking Dead cast.) “I love movies so much! That was what I did with my family growing up, so that’s what I always want to do to relax,” she says. “Of course, any free time with my husband and my son just feeds my soul. Our son [Kenric Justin II] just turned 3, and he’s such a sensational little boy. We’re quite obsessed with him!”
The move from playing one fierce, strong woman in Walking Dead to a very different powerful female character in Star Trek: Discovery has been an “all-
encompassing” experience, she says. “I did not know what my next step was going to be after Walking Dead, but I felt like it was meant to be that I was leaving the show, and I was in such a place of peace. It was right as I was shooting my last episodes as Sasha that Discovery came along. One door closed and another opened.” (Star Trek: Discovery debuted in September 2017 and is now in production on its second season, expected to air in 2019.)
Martin-Green is very mindful of the legacy she carries with her Star Trek role. As Starfleet officer Michael Burnham, she is the first woman of color to lead a Star Trek series, and one of only a handful of black female leads in sci-fi/fantasy television to date. The original Star Trek, which aired for three seasons in the 1960s, was one of the most racially integrated series of its time, with two actors of color -- African-American actor Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura and Asian-American actor George Takei as Hikaru Sulu -- in leading roles as respected officers of the starship Enterprise.
The show featured one of the first interracial kisses on television (between Lt. Uhura and William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk) and took on major social issues, such as racism, discrimination, and war. “This series has a tremendous legacy for a reason. The story has been barrier-breaking from the very beginning. It brings people together, enlightens them, shows them what is possible for humanity and what we are capable of,” Martin-Green says. “I want more than anything for us to continue to do this story justice and be something people can be inspired by. And I also want the things that we explore and nurture in our story to be reflected in my own life.”
And if she needs any insights on being a strong leader -- in her TV role or her daily life -- she doesn’t have to look far. “My mother showed me what a warrior looks like in real life,” she says. “We use that term quite loosely -- warrior -- but I saw her go to war day in and day out, and still give everything to my sister and me. I just want to keep passing that forward and allow how she blessed me to bless someone else.”
When Cancer Runs in Your Family, Should You Get Tested?
Although a strong family history of cancer can raise alarms about your own possible risk of developing cancer, only about 5% to 10% of cancers are linked to inherited mutations, and most people diagnosed with cancer don’t have a family history of the disease. That said, there are definitely some inherited factors that can increase your risk of developing cancer, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer. If you have a strong family history, what can you do to better understand and face any additional risk you may have?
“If you think you may be at increased risk of certain types of cancer, knowledge is power,” says Banu Arun, MD, co-medical director of the clinical cancer genetics program and a professor of breast medical oncology and clinical cancer prevention at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. “There are options for aggressive screening, early detection, and interventions that can reduce your risk of developing cancer or catch and treat it early.”
Some people with a strong family history may choose to avoid genetic testing because they are anxious about what they might find out and would rather not know. But not knowing carries its own emotional burdens. “When you have genetic testing and the results are positive for a cancer-causing mutation, yes, there is increased stress. But eventually that stress level goes back down because you’re able to work with your medical team to take action to manage your risk,” Arun says. “On the other hand, if you don’t undergo testing, you can never rule it out, so there’s always a subconscious worry, and the stress level over time is much higher than the person who tested positive. And the more knowledge we have, the more we can help you.”
If you think you have an increased risk of developing cancer based on your family history, ask your doctor for advice on finding a genetic counselor, or get more information from the National Society of Genetic Counselors at aboutgeneticcounselors.com.
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