In his lifetime, actor Jimmy Smits has been profoundly affected by cancer.
“My dad passed away a couple of years ago from a blood cancer,” he tells PEOPLE. “Because of his age, he wasn’t able to have a bone marrow transplant at that time. He fought a valiant fight, but he’s a statistic now. I’ve always been very dedicated to raising awareness and knowledge about the disease, because I still have hope that we can someday beat it. Cancer affects us all, and it has affected my family.”
To do his part, Smits, 62, has been working with Stand Up To Cancer for a decade, filming PSAs and speaking out about the work to find a cure. He’s appearing in a new video about immunotherapy, a type of treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight disease.
“Every step, every new thing gives us hope,” the actor says. “It’s knowledge and awareness maybe someone will see the PSA and start asking questions to their doctor. That’s what I hope happens.” (The PSA is above. It was made possible by a charitable donation from Bristol-Myers Squibb Company.)
Smits filmed the PSA in both English and Spanish, in hopes of reaching the most people.
“Some of the underrepresented communities have an unusually large occurrence of cancers because of lack of knowledge,” he says. “There’s also lack of access to healthcare, which is an entirely different conversation we could have.”
Cancer research is not the only thing important to Smits. He’s also speaking out about Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria.
“It’s very close to my heart,” he says. “My family was fine with no loss of life, no injuries. Their houses are [messed] up, but we can rebuild them. Imagine the infrastructure of an entire island being gone. Imagine if that happened to one of the 50 states, because that’s what happened.”
Smits has a long line of high profile credits: L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing and the Star Wars prequel trilogy. He recently began a guest arc on How to Get Away With Murder.
“It’s wonderful,” he says. “Viola [Davis] is such a joy to work with, and I’m just so blessed to be part of it.”
So how does his long career impact his charitable work? “My mother, God rest her soul, always said that if you’re blessed, you should use that blessing to help others. That’s what I’m doing.”