S. Epatha Merkerson--known to millions as no-nonsense Lt. Anita Van Buren on NBC's Law & Order--won a hatful of major acting awards in 2006 alone. But her biggest victory, she says, was overcoming a "brutal addiction" to cigarettes.
"I smoked for 23 years, and by the time I quit I'd reached three packs a day," says the 55-year-old actress. "And I finally got to the point where I could hardly breathe when I woke up in the morning. I also watched two of my closest friends die from smoking-induced lung cancer back during the early 1990s.
"Even then, I couldn't break the habit--which tells you something important about the addictive power of nicotine."
Merkerson tried to quit for more than a decade. She failed over and over--even after one of her sisters survived smoking-linked lung cancer. But one Saturday in February 1995, she woke up and "it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. And I finally realized: 'That's it, I've got to do something about my smoking habit.'"
So she did. Merkerson left her cigarettes on the nightstand. After seven days without a cigarette, she threw them away. She hasn't lit up since.
Worth the effort
"Quitting smoking was just about the toughest thing I've ever done," she says. "But the struggle was certainly worth it. Today I'm breathing much easier, and I have more energy than ever before. It's also good to know that I'm lowering my risk of developing lung cancer, which killed two of the people I loved most in the world."
Raised in Detroit, S. Epatha (pronounced EEE-pay-tha) Merkerson launched her acting career in the late 1970s after graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit with a theater arts degree. She started out on stage. Her television career began when she landed the part of Reba the Mail Lady on the 1980s children's TV show Pee-wee's Playhouse.
In 1993, Merkerson was cast as the down-to-earth Lt. Van Buren. Watched by more than 11 million people each week, Law & Order is the longest-running prime-time drama on U.S. television.
Merkerson also has starred in Hollywood films, including Anthony Hopkins' Slipstream and Black Snake Moan with Samuel L. Jackson. And she turned in a strong showing as feisty but kind-hearted boardinghouse operator Rachel "Nanny" Crosby in the HBO film Lackawanna Blues in 2006. That role won her an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Merkerson says she feels "very grateful" she was able to beat her cigarette addiction.
"A lot of people don't realize it," she adds, "but lung cancer is far and away the biggest cancer killer in America today. This terrible disease--which is linked to cigarette smoking about 87 percent of the time--takes more lives each year than prostate, breast, and colon cancer combined.
"If I can stop smoking, anybody can! The most important thing to realize is that by giving up cigarettes, you'll be protecting the most valuable thing you own: your good health!"
Smoking and your health
Michigan heart surgeon Larry W. Stephenson, M.D., doesn't mince words about smoking.
"When it comes to cigarettes and health, I can be pretty blunt," says Dr. Stephenson, a Detroit heart surgeon. "The medical evidence that links smoking to such potentially fatal health conditions as lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease is crystal clear. And it tells us that in recent years, smoking tobacco has been the largest single preventable cause of illness and death in the United States.
"As I tell all of my patients: People who smoke cigarettes should stop. Quitting isn't easy, but it's very important and has wide-ranging health and lifestyle benefits," he says. "Breaking the tobacco addiction is a challenge. But patients can often get the help they need to quit from support groups and doctor-prescribed medications."
How bad is smoking for your health? Here's Dr. Stephenson's rundown:
Cancer: Smoking-related lung cancer kills more than 139,000 Americans a year. In addition, thousands die of other forms of smoking-induced cancer. Cigarette smoking and tobacco use account for more than 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S.
Other chronic conditions: Smoking plays a role in such painful and sometimes disabling ailments as chronic bronchitis, asthma, and peptic ulcers.
"No matter how you analyze the statistics, the results come up the same," he says. "Smoking is bad for your health, and quitting can be an important step on the road to a healthier life."