Mom's Cancer Lands Patrick Dempsey a New Role

Oncology & Biotech News, July 2010, Volume 4, Issue 7

That human touch and caring makes a big difference for people

On screen, Patrick Dempsey cares for patients as Dr Derek Shepherd in Grey’s Anatomy. When cameras stop rolling, Dempsey is still busy caring for patients—as founder of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing in Maine and a tireless advocate for adults and children with the disease. “My awakening to the realities of cancer began in 1997, when my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer,” Dempsey said in an interview over Skype.

Amanda Dempsey survived her cancer and 2 relapses, and Dempsey said the experience educated him on the struggle patients with cancer face in navigating the maze of treatment options and payment concerns and the support community groups provide. This served as the genesis for the center, which has taken an integrative approach to care since opening in 2008 as a wing of the Central Maine Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The staff of oncology social workers and volunteers—many cancer survivors—provide education and support services to local patients and their families. Dempsey said patients with cancer not only deal with the disease, they also “worry about paying their bills, spending time with their children.” Family members are under stress, too, he said. Dempsey believes “you have to treat the whole person, emotionally, physically, and mentally.” He said meeting patients’ psychosocial needs positively affects their health. “We’ve noticed a huge change in attitude when people get a message or reiki or yoga. That human touch and caring makes a big difference for people.”

In addition to providing massage therapy and lessons on stress management, the staff explains treatment concerns and financial issues and provides counseling for patients and their partners. The center recently established the Healing Tree Children’s Program to provide emotional support for children with cancer and those dealing with a relative’s diagnosis, said Dempsey. “Play therapy...lets them work out their feelings in a very safe and nurturing way.”

Last year, the Patrick Dempsey Center helped more than 75,000 people. “All the care we give is free,” Dempsey said. To raise money, he lends his name to the 2-day Dempsey Challenge, which consists of walks, runs, and a 100-mile bicycle race. Last year’s inaugural event raised $1 million, and Dempsey said early registrations suggest this year’s event, on October 1-2, is on track to beat those totals. The Amgen-sponsored fundraiser also features the Festival in the Park, which hosts a Health and Wellness Expo that provides educational materials touting the benefits of cancer prevention and screening. Dempsey is a strong proponent of screening, which he emphasized saves lives through early detection.

“People need to be aware that they need to get screened. If there is a family history, go in and get your screenings early.” As for prevention, Dempsey said we need to pay attention to our environment. He also encourages everyone to “look at what’s going into our bodies with the foods we are eating and how they are grown.” In line with this philosophy, Dempsey stopped smoking the night before the Patrick Dempsey Center opened its doors.

When it comes to the fi ght against cancer, Dempsey said he is disappointed in the government on several levels. “Nobody’s working together. It seems like everyone’s in it for themselves.” He encouraged the nation to unite and recharge the fight against cancer. “I really do think what came out of this meeting is that we do have to rally around and fight for treating the whole person,” Dempsey said. Learn about the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing at