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.