‘Star Trek’ actor Jonathan Frakes talks about his mission to save lives from pancreatic cancer

A municipality Star Trek phrase over the years has been “Live long and prosper” and actor and director Jonathan Frakes, probably best known for playing Commander William Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), is now turning those optimistic words into real action as he partners with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) to help raise awareness of the disease and to educate each of us today on how we can best live up to the iconic Star Trek phrase.

Unfortunately pancreatic cancer strikes very close to home for Frakes. His brother, Daniel, was diagnosed with the disease and ultimately lost his life to it in 1997. In his later years, Frakes was able to turn his pain into purpose as he met his friend and companion Star Trek actor Kitty Swink at a farewell party.

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Frakes says, recalling his conversation with Swink, “He said, ‘Would you like to help out with this PanCAN company?’ I said, ‘I’d be happy to do it.’ So, this is my third year. Kitty has been a pancreatic cancer survivor for 18 years, which is astounding.

Swink and Frakes have since come together to create the PanCAN PurpleStride team Trek Against Pancreatic Cancer, raising tens of thousands of dollars as they spread the word about PanCAN’s vital work. So what exactly is the mission today at PanCAN?

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Frakes says, “The whole goal of awareness and fundraising is to hopefully find some kind of marker for early detection of pancreatic cancer, which doesn’t appear to exist in the standard blood test. When Daniel died, for example, there was a 4% survival rate, and last year after our fundraiser, our doctor’s report, there was an 11% survival rate, which makes still crap but it’s an improvement.

Julie FleshmannPresident and CEO of PanCAN, he also spoke with me and expressed the invaluable effect Frakes has had in drawing the attention of the general public to pancreatic cancer and the goals of the organization.

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Fleshman shares, “It was great to have someone like Jonathan use his voice to help us raise awareness and visibility about this disease and our mission. He is able to shine a spotlight on this disease in a way that we would never be able to. He has a voice that can really educate an audience and engage an audience and say, “This is important.” You should be involved: you should donate, you should volunteer.’”

At the beginning of my conversation with Frakes, he points out that many famous people have lost their lives to pancreatic cancer over the years, including Alex Trebek, Aretha Franklin and Patrick Swayze. He then reveals that each of those late stars had surviving family members who joined Frakes in having an active hand in PanCAN’s efforts, saying, “We work together and every year we make more money and every year the survival rate goes up.” . We are all in.

Knowing what it feels like to lose a loved one to this disease, Frakes realizes the urgency of sharing a potentially life-saving message with all of us, saying, “What I would like to share with your readers is that when they are at their annual check-up, it would help them, all of us involved, to tell the doctor if there is anyone in the family who has had pancreatic cancer.There is a pedigree string that connects and people sometimes don’t know it or they don’t share it.

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When Frakes isn’t using his time and energy to save lives, he continues to fight to save the world as his beloved longtime TV character in the ever-expanding film Star Trek universe. Since he rather recently returned to the screen as William Riker, I asked Frakes if he found even more joy playing his evolved character today than he did in his early years when he started out. Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“Eventually, he was promoted to Captain,” jokes Frakes. “It only took 35 years. I will say it in this third season of Picard, which will drop in February, if I’m not mistaken, there is a lot of Riker. There’s a lot of us all from Next generation[eration], which we were allowed to say. That’s all we were allowed to say. Revisit the character under the creative wings of Terry Matalas, of which he is the showrunner Picard third season. He’s a huge “Trekker” and really understood my character. I had a ball and have Terry to thank.

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Frakes goes on to tell me that he’s been working more behind the camera lately as he took on the role of director Star Trek shows, even with Picard, Discovery And Strange new worlds. Since he continues to have such a large presence in this fictional sci-fi world, I was curious as to how Frakes believed so many Star Trek fans have remained so loyal and enthusiastic about these various forms of storytelling over the years.

“I think it all goes back to [Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry,” says Frakes. “It has been said that his vision of hope for the future is something we all clearly need and it is revealed as we go deeper into this century that we have not yet found it. There’s a very strong sense of anti-sexism and anti-racism that is woven into these shows – awareness of the planet, of the world we live in. I think there is some aspect of this to all shows: Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I did a crossover episode with Star Trek: Lower Deckswhich is an animated adult Star Trek. I was able to play Riker there and use two of their actors in a crossover Strange new worlds. There is something about it Discovery And Picard And Strange new worlds and whatever is next Star Trek Sara. There’s something that continues to resonate with this core audience that when we started 35 years ago, was so reluctant to embrace The next generation. They didn’t want a bald English captain with a French name. They wanted Kirk and Spock and ‘Bones’ and that was it. We shot them down! We got them!

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Last August, Frakes celebrated his 70th birthday. Knowing that he has reached this pivotal age, I wondered where he would say his priorities in his life remain today. “Balance,” reveals Frakes. “We have a house in Maine that I love and finally, with my wife’s advice, I’m finding time to carve out — making time to say ‘yes’ and finding, more importantly, time to say ‘no’ has been invaluable I learned and I like it!”

When I asked Frakes what we can do in society today to make a difference in the fight against pancreatic cancer, he said: “I think I’ll go to the website. Within that PanCAN.org, there are groups that will help because pain is bitch and pain is lonely and pain is painful. There are people who are hurting who will be able to relate and hopefully soften some of the blow.”

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As I began to wrap up my conversation with Frakes, I was curious if he might have a comforting message for people facing pancreatic cancer head-on right now, as well as their supportive loved ones, knowing what it’s like to be in the their position during his late brother’s fight a quarter of a century ago.

“You have to hold on to the people you love and remember the people who love you,” Frakes continues. “It’s a wild ride, it’s a rough ride, but there are people out there who are in kind of the same boat and there’s some comfort in that.”

With November marking Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and November 17 recognized as World Pancreatic Cancer Day, I asked PanCAN’s Fleshman what she and her organization hope the public will take away most from this special moment of recognition surrounding the fatal disease.

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“We want people to know that we need them to get involved,” Fleshman says. “We need the public to be aware of pancreatic cancer. I want the public to be aware of the risk factors and symptoms, so they can be their own best advocate. Also, pay attention to your body and when you have these symptoms or if you have these risk factors, people should be aware and should have a conversation with their doctor. We need people to get involved – we need them to donate and help us raise money, so we can fund more research.”

As I concluded my conversation with Frakes, a man known on screen for fearlessly exploring the unknown, I asked him if there is one message he would like to share with his many generations of followers. Star Trek fans, viewers who continue to gleefully follow Captain William Riker’s onscreen journey and support Frakes’ continued acting and directing endeavors.

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Frakes replies, “I’m thankful and blessed and keep watching. We are all in this together. I got the best job in the world.

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