Nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes, with 90 to 95 percent of these cases being type 2. Grammy Award-winning producer Randy Jackson has partnered with Merck to raise awareness about this deadly disease, an epidemic among 4.9 million African-American adults.

Diabetes runs in my family. My dad had it, but few of us ever think it’s going to happen to us. It’s always somebody else, right? For years, Dad kept telling me, “Got to drop the weight. Got to get your diet together.” By 2003, my weight was up to 350 pounds, and I was in the worst shape ever. My lifestyle was completely sedentary: The thing is, when you’re really heavy, you don’t want to move. It hurts.

That year, I had the flu—or so I thought. I couldn’t quench my thirst. I felt tired and lethargic all the time. I had no energy. After drinking fluids and taking over-the-counter medications, nothing seemed to help. So I called my doctor and said,“Dude, I don’t know what’s going on.” After running a couple of tests, he gave me the news: “Your blood sugar is almost 500 and you’ve developed type 2 diabetes. There’s no cure for the disease, but you have a choice here. You can learn to manage and control it.”

In 2005, I took a bold step: I had a gastric bypass. That definitely was a jump-start to getting the weight off, but I also had to keep it off. I started walking an hour a day—a move I’ve been encouraging others to take. I gradually increased my walking to an hour and a half, and finally, up to two. I hit the gym six days a week now. I love tennis, and I play four days a week. I do two hours of singles because you burn more calories.

And I’ve got the diet thing under control. After my diagnosis, I went hard-core by cutting back on the pasta, rice, bread and sugar. The habits I had as a kid growing up in Louisiana were hard to break. Maybe the eating there is good, but it isn’t so good for you. Now when I eat, I think about the number of calories, carbs, sodium and sugar. I’ve become my own dietician. I can look at a meal and gauge how healthy it is.

This year, I’ve teamed up with the pharmaceutical company Merck for the campaign Taking Diabetes to Heart. I want to help people like me who didn’t even know they had type 2 diabetes. That’s what this awareness program is all about. Before I was diagnosed, I was supposed to go to the doctor every year for a checkup, but I’d wind up going every three years if something was drastically wrong. I’ve learned that you’ve gotta become friends with your doctor. Go at least twice a year. Find a health care provider you can really talk to and be honest with. It’s a live-or-die thing. Type 2 diabetes is serious—people with the illness have a two to four times higher risk of developing heart disease or stroke. There can also be other complications: problems with the kidneys, vision damage and amputations.

You always have a choice: Do you want to deal with the complications, or do you want to try and live a healthy life? I use my celebrity to get the word out and pay it forward. In my book, there can never be enough diabetes awareness.