A Conversation with Patrick Dempsey on Cancer Care

January 15, 2020

CSC President Linda Bohannon sat down with actor and racecar driver Patrick Dempsey to discuss his work in cancer care, including The Dempsey Center, the importance of patient empowerment and more.

Linda: Patrick, thanks for being here with us today.

Patrick: Well, thank you for having me. I'm learning so much today.

Linda: Oh, great. So you and I have worked together for many years between the Dempsey Center and Cancer Support Community.

Patrick: Right, almost 12 years now. I think we're getting into our 12th year.

Linda: Yeah, that's right. I'd love to know--you watching the evolution of the science that we've talked about, the meeting [People V Cancer] that we've gone to over the last couple of days, what are you most excited about when you think about what you're hearing around personalized medicine?

Patrick: What you're hearing is collaboration. You're hearing a team approach as to getting away from the silo approach, which I think is very important. There's pushback in that, but I think in that discussion, you're moving forward very quickly, and that's exciting to me.

Also, too, I think the kind of the work that we're doing to protect the patient and to empower the patient is a very important key component. And it's clear to me that the work that we are doing together, and other like-minded centers, is that it has to happen at the moment of diagnosis, that if you're waiting for the test result-- we're coming out of this last session, and my takeaway from that is that we should be there as soon as that diagnosis comes in to help people manage their emotions, prepare them to get that result back--and that could be anywhere from seven days to 21 days--and really controlling the mind, the fear, the anxiety to help them stay strong going into whatever procedure, whatever medication they might go to.

Linda: You and I share something. Your mother was diagnosed with cancer, and my father was diagnosed with cancer.

Patrick: Yes, we both lost our parents to cancer.

Linda: We did. So when you thought about getting into this world and really turning your lemons into lemonade, to use that phrase--what made you think about going into the psychosocial space versus the cure. So many people sort of go into I'm going to find a cure for this. What made you sort of think about the care?

Patrick: Because when I first got involved with the Breakaway from Cancer initiative, it was a real light bulb for me of I never thought about it before. You always think about the research, the treatment, the doctors. You don't think about the social, psychological aspect of it. And I think that's something that really needs improvement, and it should go hand-in-hand.

It should be anytime anybody's diagnosed universally, I think that should be happening. And that, to me, is what was like, OK, this is clearly what we need to be focusing on. There's a real lack of attention in that department.

Linda: When you think about the elements of receiving care, just the very practical reasons. I think that we start to think about the word psychosocial, and we think about depression and anxiety, which was so important. But one of the things that I like to share is this concept of big data. And you think about, we've got this big data, we can now mine data to say, in 80% of the patients, if we do this, this will happen. And 90% of the patients, if we use this molecular testing, this will happen. But where it all sort of falls apart is when you think about a person's attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

Patrick: Correct.

Linda: If I can't take my drug or if I can't get to my treatment center, there's a problem.

Patrick: There is a problem. And I think it's like getting access to information. How do we get the word out to people, that they should ask these questions in a way and be careful what kind of information that they're getting? How do you present them with the right package? How do you inform them in a way where they have the right questions to ask when they go in? Which then empowers them, which gives them a sense of, I'm not victimized here-- I'm proactive in this.

Linda: Right. How do you keep them off the internet when they shouldn't be on the internet? I understand they should be, but when they shouldn't be.

Patrick: I think you have to approach it in a different way. You're going to do what you're going to do. And realize you're going to have questions, and some of it will take you down a rabbit hole that may not be healthy for you. And some things may be healthy for you. But just hold off a moment and let us give you the skills before you move forward to, OK, here's what you should focus on. Here's the direction you should go and seek this information here, which is hard.

That's an incredibly disciplined approach. And when you're that vulnerable, not knowing if you're going to survive this diagnosis, I think that that's going to be where the mindfulness comes in, where yoga comes in, where nutrition comes in--all of these other things that are outside what a traditional medicine is of how they're combating this disease.

Linda: Right. So let's finish this conversation with just a moment of a friend of ours. So I just want to talk about Kathryn West.

Patrick: Right, yes.

Linda: I've known Kathryn for 20 years before we lost her recently. And I just think about how grateful I am not only to have known her but for the contributions that she made, when we think about personalized medicine. She was a nurse when they developed Herceptin. So when you think about one of the first medicines for personalized medicine, Katherine was at the forefront of that. And I know that she was a special person to you as well.

Patrick: Yeah, without her, I don't think the Center would be where it is today, and the impact that we're making in our community, and certainly the impact we're making in rural Maine, without her. She was a fighter, and she really believed in what we were doing and championed that cause. And oncology nurses are very special. They're very strong, and they're on the front lines. And you know, we miss her greatly.

But I think her spirit is still very much alive with us. There isn't a day that doesn't go by where we don't, with the staff or with the team, think about her and know that her voice is behind us, and she's here in spirit. Literally, her spirit is still with us.

Linda: 100%, in so many ways.

Patrick: So many ways. And that's her legacy, I think, to us and to the rest of the world.