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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.

Patrick Dempsey: Caregiver in Action

Making sense of a sometimes complicated diagnosis, choosing the best medical facility, sorting through reams of information -- much of it frightening -- and determining the best treatment options can be extremely challenging, Dempsey admits.

But it’s all part of being the very best advocate you can be for your loved one, whose energy should be focused on getting well, he says.

“You are in an incredibly vulnerable position [as a caregiver] because you feel beholden to people who you think have all the information,” he says. Although his Grey’s Anatomy alter ego, Dr. Derek Shepherd, often seems infallible, “just because someone is a doctor doesn’t mean they have all the answers. Be relentless, question information, and double check it,” Dempsey urges. “Get a second opinion. Do your research.”

It helped that the actor had someone on the inside to turn to. “My sister works in a hospital and is very well-connected. She gave us information and helped us break it down. There is just so much to take in that it’s overwhelming,” he says. And he offers this bit of advice: “Bring a tape recorder -- because you can’t remember everything.”

Advocating for the best possible treatment in the hospital is not a caretaker’s only job, Dempsey says. “When [a loved one] is going through chemotherapy, it’s very hard for them to stay motivated. But if you are a caretaker you need to get them off the couch and moving.”

Of course, caregivers themselves experience emotional ups and downs, seeing someone they love dealing with cancer.

“It’s really hard to stay positive all the time -- and that’s OK. You need to talk about what you are feeling and be honest about your emotions, and get therapy. And you should stay in the workplace,” the actor suggests, “so that your life is not just about the cancer.”

Terri Ades, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, agrees. “Support for the caregiver is important. He or she must step back and say, ‘I have to take care of myself.’ It can be really hard for caregivers, especially, to try and maintain an optimistic attitude when their fears are just as great as the patient’s,” she tells WebMD." Even as the years go by, from the time of first diagnosis, that fear oftentimes doesn’t ever go away -- for anyone in the family.”

Dempsey says that, at some point, we all will be caregivers or patients: “The big thing now is that more and more people are surviving cancer because we are diagnosing it earlier and earlier; there is more awareness. It’s inevitable that at some point in your life you or a family member will be dealing with this disease.”

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