Theo Wargo/Getty Laura Dern
Laura Dern is tapping into her own family history, as well as her friendships and career experience, to help raise money for a great cause.
The Academy Award-winning actress and American Lung Association ambassador recently chatted with PEOPLE about her involvement in the 2021 Nationwide LUNG FORCE Walk (during which she is hosting her own team!), including the personal connections that make the initiative especially important to her.
Recalling her grandfather dying after a battle with lung cancer when she was 6 years old, Dern, 54, tells PEOPLE, "I really went through his treatments, and everything that he walked through with lung cancer for the last year of his life, which was very painful."
"And then of course the loss of him. So it was a huge memory for me in childhood, specifically the disease itself."
The star also "had the privilege of playing" Cheryl Strayed's mother Bobbi, who died of lung cancer, in the 2014 film Wild, and tells PEOPLE that she and Strayed, 52, "had so much in common" with their experiences in losing family members to the disease.
"Also, my mother [Diane Ladd] was dear friends with Valerie Harper, who was an extraordinary advocate for others who were diagnosed with cancer, and lung cancer specifically," Dern shares. "So she and I did an event together, which was so moving and powerful."
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"I just hoped to keep doing more and learning more, and just watching their mission statement evolve in so many extraordinary areas," she says. "They are considering lung health on every level. And that means so much to me as a daughter, as a mother, as a friend, and given my history."
Dern also notes that lung cancer, which is "the No. 1 cancer killer of women," has a "tragic" disparity in terms of whom it affects more seriously in terms of demographics.
"People of color who are diagnosed with lung cancer face worse outcomes compared to white Americans, because they're less likely to get screening early, to be diagnosed early, less likely to have surgical options and more likely to have no medical care with lung cancer," she says. "That is tragic."
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The Jurassic World: Dominion actress is also hoping the efforts from the ALA and those supporting the cause can help get the word out that vaping is not safer than smoking traditional cigarettes, saying that she "didn't know the facts" until reading more closely and beginning to challenge that false narrative as a result.
"The horrors of what vaping is doing to young Americans is really terrifying," she says. "So I've also been learning from ALA about how I can guide and educate. And they're doing amazing work in school systems, and helping teach teachers, so we can all learn together quickly before it's disastrous."
"So I'm learning every day, and I'm very grateful," adds the mother of two.
Those wishing to join Dern's team for the virtual Lung Force Walk during the ALA's Turquoise Takeover, which kicked off Sunday and runs through Saturday, can do so at action.lung.org.
Supporters can also donate to a participant via the website.