LEWISTON — Patrick Dempsey, Buckfield native and Hollywood star, is home for the ninth annual Dempsey Challenge, a fundraising event for the Dempsey Center in Lewiston.

Between hugging adoring fans, talking with cancer survivors and pumping up the crowd, Dempsey talked Saturday about his plans for the future of the Dempsey Center, what the Challenge means to him and what he’s been up to.

Dempsey, who was born in Lewiston, founded the center in 2008 to provide quality-of-life care for people affected by cancer. It provides services, including education and support, at no cost to families and individuals.

With other celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John starting up cancer research and wellness centers, the idea seems to have others following in Dempsey’s footsteps. He says that’s because there is a “profound need for it.”

“Everyone here has been affected by cancer in some way,” Dempsey said in an interview. “It’s crazy to me that this hasn’t happened sooner. I think it’s going to be, ‘How do we combat this disease – with the medical aspect, medicine and also the holistic aspect. How do you treat the mind, spirit and soul?’ And then customize that so patients feel empowered and have the strength to go forward.”

The biggest challenge for the center, Dempsey said, is getting people to walk through the doors. He recalled what a woman had said to him when she brought her husband to the center – that walking in meant they were admitting they had cancer.

“Once you get that information that you’ve been diagnosed – I know what it was like to have it with my mother, but to be personally given that information must be so overwhelming,” Dempsey said.

“For us (at the center) it’s, ‘How can we help that individual?’ Letting people know they’re not alone, that there’s lots of support out there and people willing to support them, and empower them. Once again, the power of community – when people come together for a cause that’s not about an individual but about the collective group, there’s something profoundly moving about that.”

Looking into the future, with the Dempsey Center already anchored in Lewiston, Dempsey said the Lewiston-Auburn area should be “the center for health and wellness.”

“(This area) has so much potential for expansion and growth, because we have all these empty buildings,” he said. “They should be centers for health and wellness, complementing what Central Maine Medical is doing, but also bringing other like-minded people and utilizing these spaces.”

Dempsey believes in the services offered at the Dempsey Center: yoga, acupuncture, massage and Reiki.

“With all the technology and breakthroughs we’ve had, you can’t beat the human touch,” he said. “That’s why people are hugging and communicating. People want that. We yearn for that contact. Being embraced, included and loved – it’s so therapeutic.”

He said the Dempsey Challenge weekend is therapeutic for him – “the most satisfying, rewarding, moving” thing he does.

“It’s very special to be in this community, and the support the community has given the center – people like Top Dollar Dave – really embody the essence of what the center is all about,” Dempsey said, referring to Bates College dishwasher David Gervais, the top fundraiser this year.

He said it is thanks to the success of the show “Grey’s Anatomy,” on which Dempsey starred as Dr. Derek Shepherd, aka McDreamy, that the center was able to become a reality. For Dempsey, it was important to use his fame for a meaningful cause.

“The power of the show and the visibility around the world has been a great platform for me to be able to do something with that success,” he said.

“I think fame, in general, if you don’t do anything with it, is really quite empty and unsatisfying. If you can use it in a way that’s a positive thing, it’s far more fulfilling. And I think at the end of the day, that’s what life is about. It’s not about one’s personal achievements, it’s about what you can do as a group of people and as a community.”

He recalled some advice he was given by actors from the Theater at Monmouth when he was getting ready to “go off and work.” They told him, “Don’t forget where you came from.” Dempsey has carried that lesson with him through his rise to fame.

“It’s an important lesson to remember,” he said. “This is such a great place. I really appreciate coming from here, and the community and how they’ve rallied around this.”

Besides his work for the Dempsey Center, the actor is in the process of shooting a miniseries based on a novel set in Maine: “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair.” The series is expected to come out sometime next year.

“It’s been a great experience, and definitely a different character for me,” Dempsey said.

As part of his training for the part, and his own drive to challenge himself, Dempsey has taken up boxing, in both Portland and Montreal. He said it is a fantastic workout.

“It’s a great way to get in shape, very challenging physically and mentally,” he said. “I’ve been training in Montreal, and recently got into the ring. I’m trying to work on technique and footwork, and it’s much more challenging than I anticipated.”

Liz Marquis can be contacted at:

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