Dax Shepard, the wisecracking actor, comedian, writer, and director, is getting serious.
But it’s not like he’s joining the cast of “The Handmaid’s Tale” or playing “King Lear” in the park.
Shepard is on a mission to increase awareness of prostate cancer, which took the life of his stepfather in May.
In his first interview since his stepfather’s death, Shepard shared with Healthline how big an impact his stepfather had on him and his family.
The death has inspired Shepard, who is married to actress Kristen Bell, to use whatever popular appeal he has to save lives.
“My stepdad and I were very close,” Shepard said. “It’s still hard. I’m still processing his death. But I’m ready to talk about him. I want to keep as many families as I can from going through what our family has gone through.”
Shepard is determined to get prostate cancer into the popular discourse, “In hopes that we see an uptick in men seeking early prevention and diagnosis.”
Busy acting career
Shepard’s public image is largely that of a rowdy, motorcycle-loving, rough-around-the-edges guy’s guy.
He’s best known for comic roles in such movies as “Employee of the Month,” “Idiocracy,” “When in Rome,” and “Hit and Run.”
He also starred in, directed, and wrote “Chips,” the recent high-octane movie reboot of the 1970s motorcycle cop television series.
Shepard’s also shown some dramatic acting chops in such roles as Crosby Braverman on NBC’s long-running drama “Parenthood.”
Currently, Shepard hosts “Armchair Expert,” one of iTunes’ most popular podcasts.
He also has a recurring role on “The Ranch” on Netflix alongside Ashton Kutcher, and stars in a new pilot, “Bless This Mess,” on Fox.
In addition, he co-stars in the upcoming film “The Buddy Games” directed by his buddy, Josh Duhamel.
Despite all the edgy roles and his undeniable wild side, Shepard in conversation is funny as well as thoughtful and compassionate.
But the duality of Dax shouldn’t come as any big surprise.
Shepard, who graduated magna cum laude from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) with a degree in anthropology, loves giving relationship advice, as he did on the talk show “Ellen.”
He’s also well known as a devoted husband and father.
His marriage to Bell is widely viewed as one of the strongest marriages in Hollywood — a town not exactly known for strong marriages.
The couple, who met in 2007, have two young daughters and have been waging a public fight against paparazzi who take photos of children.
Shepard brings that same passion to his current mission to convince men his age and older to get a prostate exam.
In loving memory
Shepard said an oncologist told his stepfather that he would have lived much longer had he been tested earlier.
It was a big loss for Shepard and his family, and a strong impetus for his current mission.
Shepard said his stepfather, an electrical engineer, was always the smartest guy in the room.
“He was crazy smart,” Shepard said. “There is a sociological term: ‘People who know the least are the ones who talk the most.’ My stepdad was the quietest guy in the room and knew everything.”
Shepard said he sometimes would just stare at him.
“I’d just watch his facial expressions. I took pleasure in that,” he said. “He was brilliant, and he and I had this wonderfully playful relationship for almost 30 years where we loved to debate.”
Shepard said the two of them would always take opposing sides of an argument.
“That was our friendship,” he recalled. “We challenged each other and drove my mom crazy.”
Prostate cancer PSAs
Perhaps the most effective way Shepard is getting his message across to men to get a prostate cancer screening is by using his comedic acting and writing talents in public service announcements (PSAs).
With this month being Prostate Cancer Awareness month, Shepard is partnering with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the world’s leading philanthropic organization funding and accelerating prostate cancer research, on these short announcements
Founded in 1993, the Prostate Cancer Foundation has raised more than $755 million and provided funding to more than 2,000 research programs at more than 200 cancer centers and universities.
The organization’s efforts have helped produce a 20-fold increase in government funding for prostate cancer.
The PSA “I’d Rather,” which Shepard co-wrote, feature Dax and Dawan Owens (Netflix’s “The Ranch” and “6 Balloons”).
In the PSA, Shepard plays multiple characters — the main one being himself as he shares with his doctor all the things he’d rather do than have his prostate checked (something Shepard has done).
The alternative activities include watching “Fifty Shades of Grey” with his mother, doing hot yoga next to a sanitation worker, or folding a fitted sheet.
“It’s next to impossible to get someone to watch something educational about prostate cancer,” Shepard said. “I feel like if you can make something comedic enough, that is the sugar, then you subversively give the viewer a spoonful of medicine.”
Shepard’s mission is to educate men about the risks of prostate cancer and create a national dialogue about a subject most men would rather not talk about.
And one of his priorities is pointing out some of the misconceptions of this cancer, which affects 1 in 9 men.
For example, prostate cancer screening actually begins with a simple blood test, not the more invasive exams that are the eternal subject of routines by aging male stand-up comedians.
“I didn’t know anything,” Shepard admitted. “I didn’t think it would ever affect me. That’s how I used to think. When you have kids, you start to think differently, more responsibly.”
Shepard said he would not get involved in this campaign without learning as much as he could about the disease, and then staying on top of it.
“I’m the kind of guy who needs to know how the sausage is made,” he said. “I need to regularly take 20 minutes to read through all the stuff again. I kind of need to brush up on it.”
When you’re 50, he said, men have got to get their prostate checked out. Period.
“And for African-Americans and those who have a family history of prostate cancer, it should be checked out in your 40s,” he said. “With prostate cancer, every ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
A grateful foundation
Dr. Jonathan Simons, the oncologist and researcher who is president and chief executive officer of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, said that before Shepard decided to work with the foundation, the two of them sat down for lunch and discussed the organization’s mission in detail.
“His initial interest a couple of years ago was because his own family was experiencing the disease at the time,” Simons told Healthline.
As Shepard learned more about how researchers are on the forefront of real progress with precision medicine, he became “energized,” Simons explained, and concluded that he could make a difference.
“Dax has a punchline ability to deliver the important messages about prostate cancer screening, in a way that men are actually listening to,” Simons said. “It’s the rarest gift in men’s health education. Guys love him and his comedic delivery of the information.”
Simons said Shepard is determined to remove the stigmas of this disease, educate people about early detection, and save lives.
“The more we can create dialogues about prostate cancer so men open up and ask questions, the more lives we will save,” Simons said.
“We are truly grateful to Dax and Kristen for all the truly empathic and sincere love and support they have shown to families battling this disease and to our foundation,” he added. “We could not be prouder or more grateful for the ‘I’d Rather’ PSA.
Shepard vividly recalls the day his stepfather was diagnosed with cancer three years ago.
“My wife was working in Atlanta and our second daughter was maybe three months old,” he said. “It was bad. My mom was devastated.”
When his stepfather was diagnosed, Shepard said, the doctors were under the assumption that he would not live longer than six months.
“He immediately began chemotherapy,” Shepard said. “But the story I am reticent to tell, the truth is that years before, maybe 12 years before, the doctor told him he needed to take a biopsy of his prostate.”
But he didn’t heed the doctor’s advice.
Attitudes toward prostate cancer
Not heeding the doctor’s advice is all too common, as a new study from the Prostate Cancer Foundation confirms.
In addition to the new PSAs, the foundation this month is also releasing its first-ever in-depth look at the public’s perceptions and misconceptions of prostate cancer.
The results of the “PCF 3P Report 2018: Public Perception of Prostate Cancer” were shared exclusively with Healthline this week.
For the report, the foundation surveyed more than 2,000 adult men and women ages 18 and older.
Among the facts revealed in the report:
- A significant lack of understanding about prostate cancer and its symptoms exists among Americans, with 72 percent of people either unsure, or believe there are noticeable symptoms for early-stage prostate cancer. Men were more likely than women (32 percent vs. 29 percent) to believe there are noticeable symptoms.
- Men are more likely to have negative feelings about going to the doctor because they believe that prostate cancer screening tests put them in extreme discomfort and an embarrassing position with a direct rectal exam. There’s a lack of awareness that men can be screened for prostate cancer simply with a blood test.
- Less than half of respondents — only 2 in 5 — believe there is a link between prostate and breast cancer. Although people are beginning to understand that there are genetic links between prostate cancer and some breast cancers, most don’t know the term BRCA, a gene mutation commonly associated with breast and ovarian cancers (which was brought to the world’s attention by actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie). Only 12 percent believe that the BRCA gene most related to breast cancer is the one also related to prostate cancer.
- Overall, minorities are less likely than Caucasians to discuss prostate cancer screenings with their doctors as only 2 in 5 men have been screened for prostate cancer. Moreover, African-American, Asian, and Hispanic males are less likely to have been screened. This is particularly troubling as research shows that African-American men are 74 percent more likely to develop prostate cancer than any other ethnicity and are also 2.4 times as likely to die from the disease, than Caucasian men.
- Millennials are under-informed when it comes to prostate cancer; 21 percent believe women can get prostate cancer.
Shepard learned a lot
Shepard said that since his stepfather was diagnosed, he has learned a lot not only about prostate cancer, but about himself.
“It’s interesting to observe that we all have an idea of how we would handle that kind of news, and what that turns out to be in practice,” he said.
Shepard said that as the cancer got worse, his stepfather became open to a lot of things.
“He was the type of guy who would say he wanted to just end things before he went through the stages of chemo and all the uglier side of cancer,” he said.
“But when it came down to it, he rode it out,” Shepherd said. “And that gave me pause. I think I am the same way. I would not want to put my family, who I love, through an extra six months of agony, but watching my stepdad, who knows.”
Shepard said that a person “really can’t predict what your state of mind would be when given this kind of news.”
Father also died of cancer
This is the second time Shepard has had to go through something like this.
“I had done it with my own father with small cell carcinoma eight years ago,” Shepard said. “He was diagnosed in August and died in late September.”
This time was much different, Shepard said.
There is some comfort, Shepard said, in knowing what is coming.
“With my father, it was all about putting personal business affairs in order, here is the timeline, no one lives longer than six months, etc.,” he said.
“For me it was more manageable and comforting then all the unknowns that comes with a slower-building cancer,” he explained. “You don’t know what to do, do you make plans for Christmas? It leaves you feeling powerless, not knowing the trajectory.”
The lessons he learned when his father had cancer, he was able to apply to his stepfather.
“What I learned through my dad is that it was his cancer,” he said. “We all think we are smarter than our parents. I thought my father should do certain things. I did not have that with my stepdad because this is his experience, I am just kind of here for him, but not here to try to steer this at all.”
Shepard said his stepfather was the opposite of the people in his family.
“Our family is haul ass and worry about it later. He was slow and steady,” he recalled. “He was a great force in our family.”
Shepard said his stepfather never tried to be his father, but was always supportive.
“He was just there for me if I wanted to have a relationship,” Shepard recalled. “He did not want to program me, he did not try to be my dad. If I was brought home by the cops, he still never tried to be my dad.”
But of all the things he has learned during this emotional family ordeal, Shepard said the most important point is that real progress is being made in prostate cancer research.
“They are winning the war on prostate cancer, they’re making gigantic strides,” he said. “They will eradicate it. I believe this is around the corner. And knowing it is around the corner, I want to nudge [it] in that direction.”