The Dempsey Center in Lewiston

Hope and Healing for Cancer Patients Along the Androscoggin Shores

“What blows my mind about Mary is that she is willing to befriend anyone who walks through those doors. I mean, really befriends them. And that’s a huge risk.” Laura Davis, herself a 25-year cancer survivor, has nothing but praise for Mary Dempsey, cofounder and assistant director of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing. “Mary never toots her own horn, but that woman has been to more funerals than any person I know of. She’s extraordinary. They all are.”

Now located in the former Knapp Shoe Factory in Lewiston, the Dempsey Center inhabits a space not unfamiliar to Mainers whose families have, for generations, earned their living in the mills dotted along the state’s rivers. High ceilings, exposed brick, and large windows create a sense of simultaneous stability and light. Down the hall, a row of slender birches lines the mirrored wall of the Center’s indoor Healing Garden and a meditative hush offers repose. Accompanied by a friend who lost his mother to ovarian cancer, I reflect on my grandfather’s struggle with lung cancer, and realize that we are no different than many who have received support from the Dempsey Center. Mary Dempsey meets us in the waiting area overlooking the nearby Androscoggin.

“We brought Patrick to the Center when he was home,” she tells us, “he wanted a view of the river and a view of the Basilica.” The Dempsey Center, once housed in an office suite on the Central Maine Medical Center campus, moved to its new location in 2012. The Roman Catholic Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is visible to the east. “When Patrick says something should happen, it does.”

Patrick Dempsey, for whom the Dempsey Center was named in 2009, has become one of Maine’s most beloved sons. A Lewiston-born actor raised in Turner and Buckfield, he gained recognition on the television show Grey’s Anatomy playing neurosurgeon Dr. Derek Shepherd. He has also performed in several stints on stage, and starring roles in films such as Sweet Home Alabama. Despite his Maine roots, it was his mother’s cancer diagnosis in 1997 that most profoundly influenced his relationship with his home state.

“My mother has been a cancer patient for 16 years,” Patrick’s older sister, Mary, tells us. Mary, a 33-year veteran of the health care system, was able to help the family navigate Amanda Dempsey’s unusual diagnosis—a rare and recurring form of ovarian cancer called granulocytosis cell tumor.  “When it came back again, shy of a year, my brother said, ‘What do other people do who don’t have someone like you, who has a medical background?’ I said ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘well you need to find out and we’ll do it.’”

Not long after, Mary Dempsey joined with social worker Kerry Irish to create a plan for what would become the Dempsey Center. Ten years in the making, the Center opened its doors on March 31, 2008. Amanda Dempsey was its designated honoree. The Patrick Dempsey Center for Hope and Healing now offers services such as Reiki, massage, counseling, cooking classes, and support groups in its 11,000 square foot space. More than 15,000 people contact the Center for assistance each year.

Patrick Dempsey reflects on the important relationship between his mother’s cancer experience and what the Dempsey Center has become, “I think a lot of what we’ve learned through our experience with my mom has informed what we do within the Center. What is it that you truly, really want and need when you come through the door? I think the first thing is compassion and understanding and warmth. It’s so difficult for the doctors to do that, but ultimately at the end of the day, that’s what everybody wants.”

Registered dietitians provide expert advice on healthy food choices for cancer treatment, prevention and general wellness.

Individuals like Laura Davis know how important the Dempsey Center  is to patients and their families. Laura, a native of Turner and now president of Rinck Advertising, remembers, “I was diagnosed when I was 25, a young schoolteacher a few years out of college, newly married with a 3-week-old baby. I got desperately ill and thought I had a pregnancy-related illness.” Her obstetrician ordered a chest x-ray.  Sarah had stage IIB lymphoma, also known as Hodgkin’s Disease.

“I was all by myself, holding a picture of my baby, and thought ‘I cannot believe I have had this child and will not be able to raise her.’” Baby Sarah was moved to the oncology floor, to a crib alongside her mother’s bed. “She ended up being this little ray of sunshine in the hospital with me. Sometimes I look back on the 25-year-old I once was and think how the hell did I do this?” Laura credits Sarah, now 26 years old and engaged to be married, with providing her the inspiration needed to get through treatment. Says Laura, “I think all cancer patients are like this. We just do what we have to do.”

Caroline “Tookie” Bright is one of seventeen Dempsey Center staff members who help cancer patients do what they have to do. A social worker trained at the University of New England, Tookie Bright works with children, teenagers, and young adults. In addition to one-on-one counseling, she offers support groups and classes catering to these groups. Teenagers provide an interesting challenge. “With teenagers, 70% come in here and don’t want to share their feelings.” Tookie, the oldest of six children, knows that this won’t last long. “Once they get into the teen group they are hooked. Last week we had a long-term cancer survivor who was really struggling with being normal. One of the other boys said to him, ‘You are awesome.’ We just create the container and let the magic happen.”

Magic is not often a word associated with cancer. Cancer, so named for its crab-like invasion of tissues, was once a disease of secrecy and shame. Because it was not easily treated, patients would often avoid seeking medical advice until it was far too late. Even now, 43 years after then-President Nixon declared a “War on Cancer,” some cancers have proven remarkably resistant to cure.

The abnormally growing cells that cause cancer also cause an unforeseeable shift in the lives of those who suffer from it. Cancer, with its apparently random attack on people of all ages, genders and races, is the great humanizer. Patients lose their hair, body parts, and, with the generic label of “cancer patient,” even elements of their prior identities. They are required to muster strength for survival when they are at their very weakest; they are asked to forge intimate relationships with health care providers who offer a lifeline that is tenuous at best. Cancer inevitably forces the transformation of patients and their families.

Cancer also initiates connections with others in a way that few other circumstances can. Nowhere is this more evident than the Dempsey Challenge. Now in its sixth year, this event (to be held September 27-28, 2014), features 5K and 10K walk/runs and cycling rides of 10, 25, 50, 70 miles. It also features community activities such as a Family Festival and a Health and Wellness Expo. The money raised enables the Dempsey Center to continue offering its programs, free of charge, to anyone who has ever been affected by cancer. In 2013, 3,800 Dempsey Challenge participants raised more than $1.1 million.

The Dempsey Challenge is more than just a fundraiser—it has become an opportunity for shared experience. The Peloton Project documented the experience of 40 riders who biked ten days and more than 2,500 miles from Calgary, Alberta to Lewiston, in order to participate in the Dempsey Challenge. The riders, many of whom were cancer survivors themselves, developed a camaraderie that is duplicated at every Dempsey Challenge venue. Says Peloton Rider David Holgate, “When you have cancer, people just don’t know how to relate to you. It is the kind of elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge.” The Dempsey Challenge assembles people who know how to relate.

The Dempsey Center has also attracted the attention of patients and providers from all over the world. Many have asked whether the Dempsey Center may be duplicated elsewhere. Mary Dempsey admits that a re-creation of the Center is unlikely, but that there may be Dempsey Challenges held in other places, to further the Dempsey Center mission. According to the Center’s Executive Director, Wendy Tardif, one goal of the Dempsey Center is “to develop a more global presence providing cancer support services for those impacted by cancer—for those in rural communities as well as other states and even countries.”

The Dempsey Center’s focus on global reach resonates with many. In November 2014 the Maine Center for Creativity will honor Patrick Dempsey and the Jackson Laboratory with its Biennial Creative Industries Award, to spotlight and promote these two organizations’ “innovative approaches to bringing comfort, care, and a cure to cancer patients in Maine and beyond.” Patrick Dempsey and the Jackson Laboratory are the second recipients to receive this prestigious award: the inaugural recipients were Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close and IDEXX founder David Shaw.

Yoga for Littles is a program that helps kids of the Dempsey Center to relax, feel happier, and to practice kindness to themselves and others.

It is the light in darkness, and not the limelight, that illuminates the brick walls of the Dempsey Center. Says Laura Davis, “At the Dempsey Center, they are in the trenches. They are willing to hold your hand, and sit with you. They will be with you until the end.” For Mary Dempsey, the hands she holds are those of colleagues, friends, and kin. Each day that she works at the Center, she is reminded of her own mother’s journey.

“Mom’s cancer is a rare one. Slow growing. Eventually the treatments themselves are worse than the disease. Even though it’s a hard spot for me, I respect my mom’s decisions. If she were to say no more, I would respect that. I went across the country looking for a treatment for mom, and found out that we were already doing all we could.”

For Amanda Dempsey, and those who have experienced the comfort and support of the Dempsey Center, “all we could” may turn out to be more than enough indeed.

Hear more about The Dempsey Center on the Dr. Lisa Radio Hour + Podcast.

The Dempsey Center |  29 Lowell Street  |  Lewiston  |

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