Patrick Dempsey founded the Dempsey Center in Lewiston, Maine in 2008, 11 years after his mother Amanda was first diagnosed with cancer. Dempsey, who played Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd on Grey’s Anatomy for 12 seasons, is no stranger to the medical world, but it was his sister Mary’s experience in the medical world that helped the family navigate their mother’s cancer journey.
“Mary was working at the hospital where my mother was initially being treated,” Dempsey said. “She had all the information firsthand from the doctors and the nurses, and that information was very helpful for us to learn what was available as far as choices.”
Mary Dempsey became the point person for the family’s understanding of treatment options.
“I’m not shy, which is a blessing, and I have a very wide, diverse medical background, so it was easy for me to start navigating once the actual news of the diagnoses settled in,” Mary said. “Being the best informed, I reached out to my colleagues — nurses, doctors, and technicians who had been through the journey or certainly had the knowledge — and they led me to the right path to find the next step.”
Amanda was diagnosed with a granulosa cell tumor, a rare type of ovarian cancer.
“At the time, there were only 100 cases in the United States,” Mary said. “That was another difficult thing because we didn’t have the studies to compare to make those decisions.”
Helping others fight
Witnessing the toll that cancer can take on an entire family is what inspired the Dempseys to open the Dempsey Center. The center provides services not only for people diagnosed with cancer but also for their families.
“The center connects with everyone at some level,” Mary said. “The children, the spouses, the survivors, they still need our help. It’s about supporting the whole family.”
Patrick has used his profile to fundraise for the center, ensuring that the services provided remain free.
“A lot of our effort is to oversee and to listen to what the community needs and to develop the programs from there,” Dempsey said. “A lot of our services we can’t do outside the state, but hopefully we can connect you to someone in your area. That’s our goal, to have that network.”
The Healing Tree
One of the Dempsey Center’s programs, the Healing Tree, is specifically offered to children of those diagnosed with cancer. They also offer a mentor program that pairs recently diagnosed patients with people who have gone through treatment.
“There’s an immediate connection right away,” Dempsey said, “and it helps them navigate it, to be able to ask what it was like for you. That inside knowledge is really beneficial.”
The center also provides services for bereaved caregivers who have recently lost a loved one.
“When someone is lost, for the primary caregiver, their identity is lost too, because that’s what their whole focus was,” Dempsey said. “It takes time for the mourning process of letting that go.”
Before she passed in 2014, Amanda was an inspiring presence at the Dempsey Center.
“People looked up to Amanda because she fought hard and they wanted to be in the same position to give themselves as much possible leverage to live,” Mary said. “Mom would sneak into the center during the volunteer craft groups. She would sit quietly in the corner and talk with somebody and listen, and while she was doing that, she was sewing a heart pillow and then she would just leave it somewhere in the center.”
Even after she had passed, the memory of Amanda’s resilience during her 17-year battle with cancer resonates.
“She never gave up,” Dempsey said. “Her body gave up, but mentally she stayed strong.”
As Amanda used to say: “Every day is a new day, keep moving forward.”
Today the Dempsey Centers make life better for people managing the impact of cancer with locations in Lewiston, South Portland, and now a third virtual location called Dempsey Connects. All services are provided at no cost. For more information, visit www.dempseycenter.org.