You Can Go Home Again

Actor Patrick Dempsey takes his very personal commitment to cancer advocacy back to his hometown in Maine and makes a difference for patients and caregivers.

By Diana Price

When I catch actor Patrick Dempsey on the phone, he’s slightly out of breath. Apparently, he’s trying to wrangle a couple of puppies—who are chasing a cat—and some kids too, by the sound of it, on the other end of the line. And yet, after things quiet down a bit in the background, he becomes focused very quickly as our conversation turns to the purpose of our call: his passion for cancer advocacy.

For fans who have followed Patrick’s film and television career, which has included (most recently) the role of neurosurgeon Derek Shepherd in the hit ABC series Grey’s Anatomy (as well as leading roles in such films as Made of Honor, Enchanted, Freedom Writers, and Sweet Home Alabama), it’s not a stretch to picture the actor advocating for patients. But the fact is, when Patrick’s mother, Amanda, was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1998, he felt at a loss as to how he could help.

It Takes a Team

“Initially, I felt really helpless,” Patrick says. “I didn’t know what I was doing or what I should do.” Soon, though, Patrick remembered the teaching: If you don’t know what to do, sit down and wait, and the answer will come to you. What came to him was the knowledge that his most effective role during this time was to distract his mother from thinking about cancer and from the physical discomfort that the treatment would entail.

Knowing his mother’s love for remodeling and gardening, Patrick came up with a project she could completely immerse herself in, providing the ultimate distraction: “We bought a farm on the coast—where she’d always wanted to live—and that was what kept her going,” Patrick says. “She had something to work on, something to remodel, something to keep her mind off of how she felt; it gave her a reason to get up in the morning.”

While Patrick provided distraction and activity, his sister, Mary, who has worked at the local hospital for more than 20 years, provided insights into treatment decisions and helped with medical details. “My sister was the person who could give us the right information when it came to what the diagnosis was, what treatment options existed, where the best place was to go for treatment, and which doctors we should talk to,” Patrick says. “If it hadn’t been for that help, we would have been at a complete loss as to what to do and how to navigate.”

In Patrick’s view this group approach was essential. “It really does take a team to fight cancer,” he says. “You need a strong relationship with your doctor; you need a good wellness community, I think, to help navigate; and you need the support of family members.”

In retrospect, having learned from his own experience as a caregiver, Patrick counsels family and friends to take the time to discover their best role and to honor the unique contributions they can make. “Whatever your strength is, that’s okay,” he says. “Be patient at the beginning to figure out what your role will be. Don’t be afraid.” And, when in doubt, reach out for information and insight from those who have been down the road before. “Empower yourself with information, and that information will give you the strength that you need.”

Going Home and Giving Back

As Patrick and his family rallied around his mother through the multiple recurrences that Amanda faced after her initial diagnosis, Patrick was increasingly drawn to give back to the cancer community.

In 2007 he signed on as spokesperson to promote Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer initiative to increase awareness of the important resources available to cancer patients, from prevention and education to financial assistance and survivorship.

Amgen, a biotechnology company that makes medicines for people with serious illnesses, launched the Breakaway from Cancer initiative in 2005 as a complementary component to its sponsorship of the Amgen Tour of California professional cycling race. “Breakaway from Cancer represents a partnership between Amgen and four nonprofit organizations dedicated to empowering patients with education, resources, and hope,” says Stuart Arbuckle, vice president and general manager of Amgen Oncology.

Inspired by his experience with the Breakaway from Cancer program, Patrick began to focus on how he could make an even greater difference for patients and families, and he naturally turned to Maine and to the community around Lewiston in which his mother had been treated—and where he had been raised. He had maintained a strong connection with the area, and he always knew he wanted to offer something back to the place that had provided so many formative influences.

“I think growing up I felt as though it was a place that was kind of forgotten and lost, and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget where I came from because it made me who I am today,” Patrick says of his commitment to the Lewiston area.

Through meetings with local hospital staff at Central Maine Medical Center, where his mother was treated (and where his sister worked and where Patrick himself was born), plans were put in motion to create The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing, with a mission to “provide the highest quality of education, support and wellness services to enhance the quality of life of individuals, families and communities touched by cancer.”

“It was just the right thing to do,” Patrick says of the decision to create the center. The need was there—there was no wellness center—and things just started falling into place.” In March 2008 the center opened its doors, and the impact has been tremendous. Patients and families are so happy that there’s a wellness center, Patrick says. “Most of the volunteers are survivors, and they offer patients a feeling of respect, warmth, and nurturing.”

The center provides a wealth of resources and support for patients, including a resource library and a dedicated computer for patients and families seeking information about their diagnosis; professionally facilitated support groups; integrative and complementary therapies, including massage, reiki, yoga, and tai chi; a toll-free cancer assistance line; financial counseling services; a cancer health outreach coordinator; and a panel of experts to present to the community on a variety of cancer-related topics.

For Patrick personally, the experience of seeing the center come together has been transformative. “It’s an amazing feeling to go back to one’s community with a real purpose and to work together to see that vision realized—it’s the greatest feeling in the world.” And while he admits that some days are better than others—“some days are hard because you’ve heard about someone who didn’t make it”—the rewards of hearing the success stories and seeing the positive impact of the work have been inspiring. “You forget about yourself and you’re just there; everyone has worked for the same cause and has rallied around the center, and it has become the center of the community in many ways.”

It has also become the center of Patrick’s family’s advocacy efforts: his sister, Mary, is the center’s volunteer corps manager, and his mother is an active volunteer. “My mother is much more involved than she ever thought she would be,” Patrick says. “She’s not a really social person to begin with, but she has learned so much through this process that she wants to give back.” In fact, Patrick believes that his mother’s work with the center has been therapeutic. “I think she questioned why she was surviving when so many people aren’t, and this work allows her to heal herself as much as the person she is supporting.”

Patrick himself remains an active member of the center’s team, helping maintain the spirit of the mission and gathering ongoing support. “I try to keep the vision of where we’re going and what we need to do,” he says, “and I help in terms of attention and fundraising and ensuring we have a great team in place.” Ultimately, he says, the center’s success reflects the community effort moving it forward: “It is a partnership. I think our success is due to all of us working together and supporting each other.”

Moving Forward

As the center enters its third year of serving as a resource for patients and families, Patrick is grateful for the support from the community and for his mother’s continued good health. Though she has now faced five recurrences, Patrick says she continues to fight. “Each time it comes back, we all say, ‘Here we go again,’ but she has been very strong and courageous. She is a fighter.”

Patrick is also moving ahead to gather more support for patients and families. “I want to continue to ask the question, What can we provide to the community? I also want to take that idea national by creating really strong partnerships with organizations that share our mission.” By working with such organizations as Amgen and Breakaway from Cancer, the Avon Foundation for Women, and LiveSTRONG, Patrick says, he hopes to forge a network of support that will help empower patients and caregivers and make the process as easy as possible.

As Patrick describes his dedication to helping patients and families, his passion for his work—and for the community that raised him—is obvious. In Patrick’s case it’s clear: You can go home again. And when you do, you can make a real difference.

The Dempsey Challenge

Inspired by his participation in Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer initiative and the Amgen Tour of California, Patrick created the Dempsey Challenge to raise funds for The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing.

Presented by Amgen, with additional support from L.L. Bean, Poland Springs, and additional local sponsors, the Dempsey challenge is a non-competitive run/walk and cycling event that provides funding for the center’s services—all of which are at no cost to patients and caregivers.

“When Patrick invited Amgen to support a fundraiser to benefit the Dempsey Center, we were thrilled to reunite with him, support his center, and further spread the word about Breakaway from Cancer,” says Stuart Arbuckle.

“Everything we provide is free at the center, and we were brainstorming about what would be a great way to do a fundraising event,” Patrick says of the event’s origins. The Dempsey Challenge was launched from there, with support from the Central Maine Medical Center, and took place in Lewiston for the first time in 2009.

For Patrick the spirit of the event and the response from the local area were beyond his expectations. “It’s incredible how much support we’ve had from the community, and now there is a real strong sense of ownership in the center—everyone has their heart in it, a stake in it. It has really brought the community together.”

Patrick says that community spirit shines through during the event, as participants and spectators affected by cancer gather to share their stories. “Experiencing the emotion behind everyone who participates is incredible. There is a celebration of life from survivors, sadness from those who have lost someone, and a huge openness in the experience. You see such courage, and it makes you feel so recharged. That’s what the challenge has been about.”

In addition, the active focus of the weekend’s events has brought a new enthusiasm to the community toward physical activity, as people walk, run, and ride in support of the center. “People are much more physical and active than they were before, so it’s been a great thing on that level,” Patrick says. “People have started cycling who have never cycled, people are getting involved in teams, survivors are riding together—all of it is making a big impact. If you exercise, you feel better; it creates positive energy.”

For more information about the Dempsey Challenge, visit www.dempseychallenge.org.