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Patrick Dempsey: Cancer Caregiver

You may know him as 'Dr. McDreamy,' but the real Patrick Dempsey is a supportive son who has twice helped his mother face down ovarian cancer.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

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 cancer.

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 setback.”

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