For Michael Ealy, the fight against pancreatic cancer is very personal. In 2011, he lost his mother-in-law to the deadly cancer, which is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in America. According to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, 93 percent of patients will die within five years of diagnosis and 71 percent of patients die within the first year of diagnosis.
Witnessing the battle his mother-in-law faced made the Golden Globe-nominated actor and star of the ABC series “Secrets and Lies,” passionate about raising awareness about the disease—especially since many people don’t know much about it. Ealy’s mission is simple, he wants to help educate the world on the significance of screening, diagnosis, research and treatment of pancreatic cancer.
Despite advancements in treating other major cancers, there’s still no early detection method for pancreatic cancer, which develops when cells in the pancreas (the organ located behind the stomach that plays an essential role in converting the food we eat into fuel for the body’s cells) start to grow uncontrollably. According to the National Cancer Institute pancreatic cancer is diagnosed in African-Americans more often than in other racial or ethnic groups in the U.S., and risk factors include age, family history, smoking, being overweight and workplace exposure to certain chemicals.
To commemorate Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and World Pancreatic Cancer Day today, we caught up with Ealy to talk about his substantial role in such an important cause.
EBONY: Did you think that you would be as involved in the fight against pancreatic cancer after your mother-in-law passed as you are now?
Michael Ealy: When I joined the cause, I definitely wanted to be where I am right now. I wanted to be part of creating as much awareness as possible.
EBONY: There are plenty of people who don’t know anything about pancreatic cancer or how serious it is, although it’s the fourth common cause of cancer-related death in men and women. Why is that?
ME: There is a smaller number of people who get pancreatic cancer so in the eyes of the general public, a massive campaign, like with breast cancer, is not warranted. But the truth is, it’s one of the most lethal cancers and we have to raise awareness because it’s killing people. It deserves as much attention as any other cancer out there. Not only do we want to keep the numbers low but we also want to eliminate the cancer period. The only way to do that is to create awareness around it on a scale that registers with the masses. This needs to be done in order to raise enough funds for research and clinical trials so that the right methods of treatment are put in place. We don’t want to wait until more die from it.
EBONY: You’ve done TV commercials with the Lustgarten Foundation (America’s largest private foundation dedicated to funding pancreatic cancer research), participated in walks to raise awareness, and Tweeted about the disease. What has this experience has been like for you?
ME: It has personalized the cause even more. Obviously losing my mother-in-law was painful and it was even harder for me to watch my wife Khatira suffer that loss. But when I go to these events, I talk to people and many of us have the same story. Yes, the walks are a great way to raise funds for research, but as much as it’s about raising funds, it’s also about finding your community and bonding with people who are going through the same pain.
EBONY: Has social media been a very effective tool in raising awareness about the disease?
ME: Absolutely. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me on Twitter and say ‘Thank you for lending your voice.’ When people tell me that they’ve lost love ones to pancreatic cancer and they appreciate what I’m doing, an instant bond is created. And that’s why I am doing all I can for this cause.
Learn more about World Pancreatic Cancer Day and join the fight here.
LaShieka Hunter is a freelance writer and editor based on Long Island, N.Y. Follow her on Twitter.