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'Law & Order' star on a new mission of health

S. Epatha Merkerson wants you to have an A1C test

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DETROIT – To "Law & Order" fans, she'll forever be Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, but S. Epatha Merkerson has a new mission now.

Merkerson was born in Saginaw, Mich., but grew up in Detroit.

"Hanneman Elementary, Munger Junior High, Cooley High School, and Wayne State. I am definitely a home-grown girl," said Merkerson.

The actress is home to spend Thanksgiving with her family, but she is also using the opportunity to educate her hometown about a health problem she knows all too well.

"There's nearly five million African Americans that suffer with type 2 diabetes," said Merkerson.

She is one of them, diagnosed eleven years ago while making a TV appearance at a health fair.

"On camera, I'm having my blood sugar tested, and when the lights went off for the camera, the doctor walked over and said, 'Would you mind coming back?' And I said "Sure," thinking he wanted an autograph or a picture," recalled Merkerson.

Instead, the doctor told Merkerson her blood sugar was high and recommended she follow up with her doctor.

"I had no idea. I didn't recall any symptoms, I couldn't have told you what the symptoms were," said Merkerson.

But diabetes is no stranger to her family. Far from it.

"My dad died from complications of type 2. My grandmother went blind. I have a brother now who is in the throes of really trying to get his A1C (under control) and change his lifestyle," said Merkerson. "It is very much a part of my family history. Amputations as well. It wasn't that I didn't know about it. I just didn't know what to look for. It wasn't a part of our family dialogue."

She hopes more people will make type 2 diabetes part of their family dialogue, especially with the holidays and lots of family gatherings approaching.

Merkerson wants everyone, especially if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, to get a blood test called A1C. It shows your average blood sugar level over the past two to three months.

"I'm asking people to join me on AmericasDiabetesChallenge.com and pledge that they'll find out. That they'll go to their doctor and find out what their A1C is and start being proactive in their healthcare," urged Merkerson.

Merkerson admits, her lifestyle before her diagnosis was not ideal.

"I ate like a 12-year-old. I mean, it really was shameful in retrospect," said Merkerson. "I wasn't exercising."

That's all changed now. After trying various fitness routines, Merkerson now favors long walks in the hilly section of Central Park in New York City, where she lives.

But everything in moderation. Merkerson admits there is still one Detroit institution on her list of must-visits. Check out the picture she recently tweeted from American Coney Island.

After 17 seasons on Law & Order, Merkerson is taking on new challenges. She directed a documentary called "The Contradictions of Fair Hope" and is directing theater projects as well.

But she is still an actress, and she hopes her fans will be inspired by her story to take action.

"Type 2 diabetes is manageable, and I think it's so important that people understand that," said Merkerson

To learn more about America's Diabetes Challenge, click here.