Laura Dern is not one to shy away from difficult topics. On the now-infamous 1997 Ellen episode in which Ellen DeGeneres' character came out as a lesbian, Dern played Ellen's love interest. Later, Dern revealed that she couldn't find work for the next year and a half because of homophobic backlash. In last year's Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir of the same name, Dern played Strayed's mother, Bobbi Lambrecht, who died of lung cancer mere weeks after her diagnosis. Dern's own grandfather passed away from the disease when she was six; that experience is a major reason why Dern is now focusing on raising awareness about lung cancer.
Why is lung cancer is a personal issue for you?
"I had a grandfather die of lung cancer. I hadn’t really been that aware of it, [but then] Valerie [Harper] is a dear friend of my mother's, and that was the first family friend that I had heard about [who had it], and it metastasizing… With grief, I’ll admit that I was really naive about lung cancer in terms of connecting it to [only] smoking… I’m an environmentalist who has done a lot of research for my children’s health. [I was] raised in Los Angeles — one of the top-three smog capitals of the world — and [was] very aware of lung health in terms of what the environment does to us. Yet I didn't correlate it as a great concern for women [in terms of cancer risk]."
What's the current level of awareness around the disease?
"Only 1% of women have their lungs on their health radar… The message is loud and clear to all of us that we have to have a mammogram, but I know no woman who’s getting chest x-rays. [Ed. note: Find out if you are a candidate for lung cancer screening here.]
"Sheryl Crow is one of my best friends in the world, and she has done so much to support the message that women should talk [about cancer], share, tell everyone of their diagnosis, spread the word…to educate, to be part of a larger family story — which is, how do we solve this? Lung cancer is not necessarily related to smoking, and we all have to become educated and aware and protect ourselves."
It sounds as though shame and silence still play a large role in the lack of awareness.
"I mean, even Valerie, who is a ferocious advocate on the board of the Screen Actors Guild, protecting actors in their union, and in the feminist movement for the ERA — I’ve watched her fight for many a cause. Even this woman with this amazing voice who’s this incredible survivor is still saying 'I feel embarrassed because I didn’t get a chest x-ray.' She just said to me, 'I'm too smart for this.' That just devastates me… But, her sharing that fear empowers us to not be afraid to go to good doctors, to get ourselves checked, to consider our health, to consider our environment. We all need to use our voices. To band together to create awareness is enormous."