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.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 30, 2007
8 min read

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.”

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.”

While helping his mother battle ovarian cancer preceded his People’s Choice Award-winning role in Grey’s Anatomy, Dempsey did channel some of his caregiving experiences to help mold “McDreamy” -- and to foster a new approach to health care for himself and his family.

“I met a doctor who had a really wonderful bedside manner, which I thought fit in with some of the other characters in the show,” he says. “When I started working on Grey’s, the thing that appealed to me was someone who had a relaxed bedside manner and who was not alienating patients and talking over their heads.”

This is precisely the kind of medics Dempsey and his mother encountered -- at first. “There were great doctors when my mom was being treated. But then a doctor retired, and he handed her over to another doctor who was considered very good but had a horrible bedside manner,” he recalls. Fortunately, Amanda was able to switch to a doctor with whom she had a better rapport.

These days, Dempsey is as skilled at being a real-life patient as his TV character is at being a neurosurgeon: “Everything I can get screened for, I screen for. And if it comes back questionable, I look into it further. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

He’s right on track with his regular physical exams. An avid race car driver and cycling enthusiast, Dempsey gets a full physical before each new season of the show. Experts agree that the most important thing you can do for your health is to get screening early and take daily steps to maintain your health. Most doctors recommend men get a baseline physical at age 18, then one every two to three years if they are healthy. Talk to your doctor about what applies to you and how often you should be tested.

Dempsey takes care of himself in other ways, too, and strives to stay fit. “Yoga is great for everybody,” the actor says. “It improves flexibility and immunity and adds to longevity. But,” he adds, “whatever attracts you, you should go out and do.”

Even during tough days on the set, when there isn’t much time for exercise, he does sit-ups or push-ups in his trailer. (Look for those picture-perfect abs on display in Made of Honor, a romantic comedy scheduled for release in early 2008.)

As for the rest of his family, maintaining good health -- physical and emotional -- is a priority. Married for eight years to stylist and Avon color consultant Jillian Fink (whom he met when he walked into her Los Angeles salon for a haircut), Dempsey is the father of 5-year-old daughter, Talula, and twin sons, Darby and Sullivan, born in February of this year. “It’s really hard with the sleep deprivation,” he admits with a laugh.

But for couples, the secret of surviving the travails of parenthood is simply making time for one another, Dempsey says. “Date nights are very important.”

One thing is clear: When it comes to good health, emotional and physical, Dempsey puts his family first. And the passionate dedication that shines through every week on Grey’s Anatomy -- the same caring spirit that inspired a legion of fans to collectively sigh and dub Dempsey “McDreamy” -- is definitely no act.

Patrick Dempsey: Raising Cancer Awareness

Last fall Patrick Dempsey signed on to become the official spokesman for Breakaway From Cancer, an initiative created by pharmaceutical company Amgen, Inc., to raise awareness and funds to support free services and programs for people living with cancer.

For example, Breakaway has raised more than $1.5 million since 2005 to support The Wellness Community, a nonprofit organization that sponsors free professionally led support groups, educational workshops, nutrition and exercise programs, and mind/body classes. “Support groups can be so important for people living with cancer,” Dempsey says.

Since 2006, the initiative has also supported the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, the oldest survivor-led cancer advocacy organization in the country.

“The greatest thing about the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship is that it offers a toolbox on its web site that shows you how to navigate through paperwork and bills when dealing with cancer,” Dempsey says.

“This is a big stumbling block. When you or someone you love has cancer, you want to make their life as simple as possible, and when you are thrown curveballs from hospitals or individual doctors in regard to bills, it’s very difficult.”

Breakaway also sponsors cycling events to benefit cancer care. It’s the perfect fit for Dempsey, who tells WebMD he rides “at least 25 miles a day” when not putting in long hours on Grey’s Anatomy.

As part of his involvement with this initiative, Dempsey is now researching how to give back to the Maine community where his mother was treated. “We are trying to find out what Lewiston needs,” he says. “If it’s a wellness center, great, but if that is not what they need, we want to find out what their need is and fill it.”

One possibility is a hotline to help guide Lewiston’s senior citizens through the medical milieu. “They can be put into contact with the right doctors and followed,” the actor says. “We are moving forward and working with a local hospital.” -- Denise Mann

Originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.