How Patrick Dempsey's Late Mother Inspired His Commitment to Cancer Care

PATRICK DEMPSEY and MOM-Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing

When Amanda Dempsey was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it gave the actor a focus: to provide support services for patients and their families across his native Maine.

Eleven years ago someone asked Patrick Dempsey, freshly launched into stardom, what his cause was. “It was a good question,” says the actor. “And I didn’t have a good answer.”

Dempsey is lounging in jeans and a t-shirt in his open-air Venice Beach office on an early August afternoon, describing how his mission soon came into focus, one wrapped around his mother and his hardscrabble New England hometown. Doctors had discovered that his mother, Amanda, had a tumor the size of a grapefruit, and after successful surgery, she settled in for a long battle with ovarian cancer. Dempsey, who had begun to take an interest in integrative and complementary medicine, made some calls to see if he could get his mother into a support group in Lewiston — the city in central Maine where had he grown up and worked so hard to escape. The short answer was that no such services were available anywhere in the region. Suddenly he had a cause.

To get the ball rolling, Dempsey wrote some checks, and the doors to the Dempsey Center in Lewiston opened in 2008, a modest 2,000-square-foot facility delivering an ambitious range of services to cancer patients and their families. Working closely with oncologists at the Central Maine Medical Center, the organization offers wellness services, support and education to anyone impacted by cancer. From the start, Dempsey's sister, Mary, has been instrumental in the evolution of the Center; she presently serves as the organization's Community Services Coordinator.

Everything is free. “There are so many stresses to having cancer,” says Teo Abbruzzese, a 26-year-old rancher diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma three years ago. “The financial pressures are real — even if you have insurance, you get deluged with bills and paperwork. So to know that I get all these wonderful services at the Dempsey Center and never even get a bill is ridiculous in a good way.” Abbruzzese, has received nutritional and cooking counseling to help staunch his weight loss, gotten massages to diffuse stressful moments and attends a regular support group geared just for younger adults.

New branding for the Dempsey Center that will be publicly unveiled this fall.

To extend all these services to the widest range of patients, Dempsey knew that he had to raise money and support for the cause. And thus the Dempsey Challenge was born in 2009. Inspired by his new passion in cycling, the Challenge invited riders to fundraise and join the actor for a challenging ride in the rolling countryside around his hometown. The first rendition netted more than $500,000, and things mushroomed from there. Last year, 4,000 participants from 35 states made the trip to Lewiston — participating in multiple cycling events, a running race, a survivors walk, a lobster feast and a weekend of other community events — raising north of $1.2 million. As a bonus, a struggling mill town found a big tourist event to anchor its reinvention, and participants found inspiration to tackle a physical challenge and come face-to-face with the cancer community they are supporting. I have been to the Challenge twice and Dempsey is relentlessly gracious — shaking hands and posing for thousands selfies, personally thanking the 2,000-plus volunteers it takes to pull the event off, entertaining sponsors and top fundraisers, and offering a massive platform for the region’s cancer community to share its struggles and triumphs with supporters.

“I’ve done Ironman triathlons and tons of charity events for runners and cyclists but I’ve never done anything as world-class as the Dempsey Challenge, an event that is at once so beautiful and heartbreaking and inspiring,” says Shannon Thompson, a Mainer who got passionate about cancer charity after her niece Phoebe died from a brain tumor in 2011 at the age of 5. In the past three years, Thompson has personally raised about $28,000 to support the Center. As (bad) luck would have it, her father was diagnosed with breast cancer this past April. “You can’t really overstate how overwhelming the moment of hearing a diagnosis can be,” Thompson says, recalling her unexpected transition from top fundraiser to beneficiary. “My first call was to the Dempsey Center. It was an incredible comfort to know I had someone to figure out our next steps.” (Thompson’s father is healthy now.)

Thanks to the more than $10 million that the Dempsey Challenge has generated — along with partnerships with corporations like Amgen that Dempsey has personally facilitated — the center was able to trade up to a sprawling 11,000 square-foot facility that opened its doors in September 2012. Led by a staff that now numbers 18 (and supported by an active network of volunteers, who donated more than 28,000 hours of service last year), the list of available services, all of them without cost, has blossomed — massage, Reiki, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation; nutritional, financial and therapeutic therapy; a lending library, a wig room and a demonstration kitchen. The center also offers extensive support services for family members, especially children, whose struggles with a parent’s diagnosis often are overlooked by traditional caregivers. In 2015 alone, more than 10,000 people took advantage of one-on-one services, education programs, counseling or hands-on therapies — nearly 1,500 no-cost massage and Reiki sessions. “We spent a lot of time discussing metrics to define our success, and in the end we decided to keep it simple,” says Dempsey. “We just ask people, ‘Did it make you feel better?’ When you’re dealing with cancer sometimes that’s all that matters.”

The Dempsey Center's 11,000-square-foot facility in Lewiston, Maine.

Dempsey had to ask himself some hard questions in the past year. His 11-year run at Grey’s Anatomy came to a dramatic halt and he threw himself without abandon into auto racing — and though he’s insistent that he has no regrets, he’s quick to admit it came at a cost. Dempsey was initially reluctant to costar in the upcoming Bridget Jones’ Baby because he was feeling fiercely protective of the time to maximize his racing. “But I came out of that film almost a different person than the one who entered it,” he says Dempsey. “I’m in a way better place now in every aspect of my life. My family, my acting, everything. I’ve got all this new passion to tackle new kinds of projects now.” Along the way, he’s come to realize how the Dempsey Center is essential to his goals in life.

Though Dempsey’s support of the Center had been unwavering, a major event — the death of his mother, who over the years had become the soul of the cause — forced him to reassess his involvement. After dodging so many dire prognoses and working so tirelessly to support the Center, Amanda’s 17-year fight with cancer ended in March 2014. “My mom’s death was hard for me — horrible, actually,” says Dempsey. “When she died I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep going back to Lewiston and doing all these things that would keep reminding me about my grief. I really needed to step back and figure things out.”

But in the end, he decided that he had an opportunity to evolve the mission of the Center, and so he doubled down. In retrospect being able to step away from Grey’s grinding production schedule allowed didn’t just give him the opportunity to indulge his dream to go after auto racing full-bore; it gifted him the time to be way more involved in operations and strategic planning at the Center. Dempsey says that in the past year he’s taken monthly trips from L.A. to Lewiston to meet with staff and spearhead strategic planning. “Patrick knows that writing checks is less important than creating relationships,” says Wendy Tardif, Executive Director of the Center. “He brings in corporate partners and helps sustain those relationships. And now that he’s had more time, he’s here all the time – getting to know patients, figuring out ways to diversify our fundraising efforts, asking probing questions about services we are providing and services we could be providing. Lately, we’ve been traveling all over the state to look at other facilities to see how they’re serving the cancer community.”

Dempsey led riders out for the start of the Dempsey Challenge last October.

Those road trips have helped inform the Dempsey Center’s newest focus: to expand to other underserved areas in Maine and ultimately elsewhere in New England. “That’s where my head is now,” says Dempsey, who has a number of cooperative agreements in motion with a number of existing facilities. When asked if these organizations will take on Dempsey Center branding, the actor laughs. “Some of them will, some of them may not — that’s not the point,” he says. “The point is to take what we’ve got going in Lewiston — that quality of service, the things that we know work, all of them free — and try to help more people.”

Dempsey is presently gearing up for the 2016 Dempsey Challenge, which will be held in Lewiston on Oct 1-2, where he will press the flesh and offer a platform to the cancer patients he is offering hope to and unite thousands of people and his hometown with a healthy cause. “Frankly, I get as much out of it as anyone,” says Dempsey. “Most of the time I really don’t enjoy fame — Hollywood can be tiring and empty. But when I can use it to accomplish something constructive — those are the moments that I actually enjoy being famous.” 

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.