LEWISTON — When Shannon Thompson’s father was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, she went to the Dempsey Center. She’d raised money for the center for years and had a friend who’d battled cancer and used its services, so she knew the people there could talk treatment options and give her support.
Even though she lives in Camden and her father lives in Vinalhaven — nowhere near the Lewiston cancer center.
The distance didn’t bother her at all.
“I feel a real feeling of family there,” said Thompson, who has to drive an hour-and-a-half to get to the center. “There’s a depth and a heart to that organization that I have not really ever seen anywhere else. It’s a very special place.”
While most Dempsey Center clients live within 40 miles or so of the city, the center is increasingly seeing people like Thompson — patients, their families or caregivers who live far away but willingly, often gratefully, make the trek for the center’s free services and personalized support.
“People find them impactful on their quality of life. I think that’s very significant,” said Wendy Tardif, the center’s executive director.
The Dempsey Center was founded in 2008 by actor Patrick Dempsey and his siblings in honor of their mother, Amanda Dempsey, who battled ovarian cancer for years. She died in 2014 at the age of 79.
The center — formerly The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing — was created in partnership with Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston to provide cancer support, education and complementary therapies, such as massage. Every service and program is free and available to anyone, regardless of where the person lives or from which hospital the patient receives cancer treatment.
Although no firm numbers are available, the center estimates that it now serves about 5,000 people a year — about quadruple the number it saw in 2009, its first full year.
As the center’s reputation has grown, more of those people are coming from outside Lewiston-Auburn. Think Camden, which is about 70 miles away, or Tenants Harbor, which can be nearly 80.
“I would say the farthest we’ve had people come is Bangor,” Tardif said.
That’s more than 100 miles away.
To help accommodate someone visiting from a distance, the center books services together — scheduling, for example, a massage, nutritional consultation, cooking class and yoga session all during the same day.
The center has also expanded its over-the-phone services, which provide support and consultations, among other things. Two years ago, it also created the Maine Cancer Resource Connection, a staffed information line that anyone in Maine can call to locate cancer resources close to where they live.
Then there’s the toll-free line the Dempsey Center maintains for people who call from outside Maine and need help.
“We get a fair amount of those calls, especially when we’re in the national news with Patrick (Dempsey),” Tardif said. “Like with his new movie.”
Thompson got help both in person and over the phone.
While her father didn’t feel the need to reach out to the center, Thompson did. Her 5-year-old niece, Phoebe Holland-Thompson, had died in 2011 from brain cancer and now her 73-year-old father was diagnosed with cancer. She felt blindsided.
Thompson, who had been designated the family’s researcher, called the center for support and advice, to learn more about her father’s options and to figure out how to navigate this medical system her family had been thrust into.
“It was so helpful, just to talk it through with somebody,” she said. “Just to feel like I had somebody to help me process it, somebody who was on my team, who had my back. Somebody who could just say, ‘You’re doing a really good job here,’ because it feels really out of control.”
She also stopped by the center when she could, pausing in Amanda’s Garden, the quiet, plant-filled room named in honor of Amanda Dempsey.
“Sometimes I had meetings in Lewiston and I would pop in the center and just go sit in that room,” she said. “Just sit quietly. Or bawl my eyes out.”
Today, months after his diagnosis and a double mastectomy, Thompson’s father is cancer free. Thompson credits the center for helping her get through that time.
“They are really providing first-rate services with unconditional love,” she said. “You know? I mean, it sounds corny. It sounds super corny. But to me that’s what makes them really special. To a person, they’re incredibly competent and they really care about every person who walks through their doors.”
In the coming years, the Dempsey Center will likely see even more people from outside L-A.
This summer, it launched a new website and “rebranding” effort — which included changing the name from The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing to the Dempsey Center — as part of a larger marketing plan “so we can get the word out even more,” Tardif said.
The center is planning to stream some programs live, like its nutrition and cooking classes, so anyone can watch online from wherever they happen to be.
The Dempsey Center is planning to increase its collaboration with cancer resource centers in other parts of the state within the year. Two of the biggest it currently works with are Cancer Community Center in South Portland and the Beth C. Wright Cancer Resource Center in Ellsworth.
“We offer more one-on-one services and programs here than they do in those other two locations,” Tardif said. “So we’re really hoping that we can help them to be able to offer more of what we do in their areas.”
People outside L-A may also soon have another option: another Dempsey Center, maybe in their town.
The center is considering adding locations in the next couple of years.
“Just like we did here in Lewiston, we’re going where people are asking for those services,” Tardif said.