A decade before Grey’s Anatomy was even imagined, Patrick Dempsey --
the actor who catapulted to fame as “Dr. McDreamy” in the hit medical drama --
was already working on his bedside manner. No, he wasn’t preparing for a part.
He had traveled back to rural Maine, where he’d been raised, to help his
mother, Amanda, take on the fight of her life: a second bout with ovarian
Her cancer, first caught in stage IV in 1996, returned in 1999, and Dempsey
and his family were there to give her crucial support. With the help of her son
and his two older sisters, a grueling six-week course of chemotherapy, and
comforting, distracting activities such as “gardening and planting, and
remodeling the house, so we could look past the cancer,” Dempsey says, his
mother managed to beat the dreaded disease again.
Amanda’s experience -- battling ovarian cancer not once, but twice -- is not
uncommon. About 70% of women with ovarian cancer face recurrence. The disease
can be a stealth opponent for many reasons, explains Dennis S. Chi, MD, a
gynecologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
“If a woman has vaginal bleeding over age 55, we think uterine cancer. If
someone over 50 has blood in their stool, we think colon cancer. But there is
nothing specific about ovarian cancer,” he says.
Certainly, early signs are hard to come by. And because there is no
screening test, “We usually don’t catch ovarian cancer until it has begun to
spread and is at an advanced stage,” Chi adds. (Some good news, however:
Several top medical organizations recently agreed on a list of
ovarian cancer symptoms that women and their doctors now can consult. While
these signs are associated with other conditions as well, experts hope ovarian
cancer will soon become less of a “silent disease.”)
Typically treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, ovarian cancer
will strike 22,430 women in 2007, and about 15,280 women will die from the
disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
“The five-year survival rate for stage III or IV ovarian cancer can be 10%
to 60%, depending on how a woman responds to therapy, her age, and how
extensive the disease is,” Chi says. “You can have stage IV and have long-term
survival, but the odds aren’t great.” Typically, only about 20% of cases are
found early. Survival rates outside this early stage can be as low as 30% in
five years. Fortunately for the Dempsey clan, their matriarch, now 72, seems to
have beaten those odds.
Ten years later, they’ve only begun to exhale. “There is the anxiety of, if
it will come back again, how my mother would feel,” the 41-year-old actor tells
WebMD. “She is not the same person that she was, emotionally and physically,
before the cancer. And every time it comes back, it’s another emotional