Seth Helie died of brain cancer at the age of 42. He was a furniture designer and owned his own company, Seth Helie Designs. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

BRUNSWICK — On Sept. 1, 2017, Seth Helie woke up with no idea what day it was.

He was 42, a young, healthy father and husband. An active amateur photographer and professional woodworker with his own business. A man with no history of major medical problems.

But within 10 days, he could barely walk. Within three weeks, he could not walk at all, couldn’t remember things and had trouble talking.

Within five months, Seth died of brain cancer.

“What I tell people (is) I have never had cancer, but cancer took my life,” said Amy Helie, Seth’s wife.

In the aftermath, Helie and her 15-year-old son Ethan have had to create a new normal. Helie finds cooking dinner difficult because that was something she and Seth always did together. Ethan has struggled with anger — a “short fuse,” his mom calls it — since his father’s death.

But they have found help.

“I knew about the Dempsey Center. Everyone knows the name — ‘Oh, the Dempsey Center.’ I never really knew what they did, and I think there are a lot of people out there who are like me,” Helie said. “You don’t know what they do until you actually are put in that situation where you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what they do.'”

What they do, she discovered, is help cancer patients and their families, all free of charge. Today, Helie and Ethan attend one-on-one counseling sessions at the center, where they’re surrounded by people who know what they’re going through because they’ve gone through it themselves.

They’re so grateful for the help that the Brunswick mother and son are joining this weekend’s Dempsey Challenge, the center’s largest annual fundraiser. Ethan has so far raised more than $3,200 and is listed among the Challenge’s top participants.

“Little by little, pieces of my life are coming back into place. I have the Dempsey Center to thank for that,” Helie wrote on Facebook recently as part of Ethan’s fundraising for the center. “I cannot put into words how thankful I am for this place. I see pieces of my son that I never thought I would see again. The smile that I see coming back to my son’s face and the laughter I hear; that is all thanks to them.”

‘IT WASN’T REALLY HOME WITHOUT SETH’

Founded in 2008, the Dempsey Center — then called The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing — was created in partnership with Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston to help cancer patients and their families. Actor Patrick Dempsey and his siblings, who grew up in Buckfield, helped found the center in honor of their mother.

Amanda Dempsey was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1997. She died in 2014 at age 79.

In recent years, the center separated from CMMC to become an independent nonprofit. It also merged with the Cancer Community Center in South Portland to add a second Dempsey Center location.

Both locations provide free cancer support, education and complementary therapies, such as massage, to cancer patients, their families and caregivers, regardless of income, where they live or from which hospital they receive their treatment. Both locations benefit from the Dempsey Challenge, an annual weekend fundraiser — and one of the largest events in Lewiston-Auburn — in which people run, walk or cycle to raise money.

While Helie knew just a little about the Dempsey Center, she knew a lot about cancer. Her father died of the disease 10 years ago. In his honor, she and her family started their own nonprofit, the Dean Snell Cancer Foundation, to help patients with New England Cancer Specialists in Topsham pay for medical assistance and other expenses.

She was aware of the Dempsey Challenge as a fundraiser, but she didn’t participate.

“It’s always been something I always wanted to do, I just never did,” she said.

Then, that September morning in 2017, her husband woke up confused.

Within days, Helie had brought him to multiple doctors, including a neurologist. They ran blood tests, an MRI, a CT scan, all coming back with few answers even as his memory problems persisted. Ten days later, as the family waited on the results of a lumbar puncture, Seth’s health took a sudden turn. Helie rushed him to the emergency department at Midcoast Hospital in Brunswick. The trip took five minutes, but by the time they got there he could barely walk.

“That day was the last day he was home, the last day he was in Brunswick, the last day he ever rode in a vehicle that was not an ambulance,” Helie said.

Seth was taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland that evening. Soon, he could no longer walk at all and had trouble talking. After a brain biopsy on Sept. 27, he lost the ability to talk and move his arms and legs. Seth communicated with his wife of nearly 18 years by squeezing her hand and blinking.
Two weeks later, the family learned he had cancer. Seth’s grade 4 glioblastoma was rare and deadly. Doctors said he might live a year with radiation and chemotherapy; he might live four weeks if they did nothing.
“The toughest thing that I have ever had to do was to call Ethan that afternoon to give him this news,” Helie said. “I remember just sitting there on the phone in silence while he cried.”

Chemotherapy and radiation seemed to help, as did physical rehab. Days before Christmas, an MRI showed no new cancer growth. He was able to speak, use his hands, take small steps with assistance and wheel himself in the wheelchair.

But on Dec. 31, Seth developed a pulmonary embolism. He moved to a hospice house in Scarborough.

Jan. 12 was the last time Helie heard her husband talk or saw him open his eyes. He died Jan. 30.

“Going home was difficult,” Helie said. “It wasn’t really home without Seth anymore.”

‘THE PEOPLE JUST SEEMED NICE’

Amy Helie and her son Ethan, 15, will participate in their second Dempsey Challenge. Helie’s husband and Ethan’s father, Seth, died from cancer at 42. Seth Helie’s photographs and wood designs decorate the Helie’s home in Brunswick. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

While Seth was sick, Helie remained with him around the clock, taking leave from her job as a quality assurance analyst. Ethan lived with an uncle in Brunswick.

They had to come back together as a family, but without Seth.

For a while, both Ethan and his mother went to local counselors. Ethan was having angry outbursts over little things that had never bothered him before. Helie struggled with daily tasks, like cooking dinner. But neither had a great connect with their counselor and both mother and son stopped going after a while.

Then, last fall, they joined a fundraising team for the Dempsey Challenge. Helie’s friend, Marcy Cox, had been diagnosed with cancer around the same time as Seth and died last year. Her family and friends put together a Challenge team, named “Marcy Strong,” in her honor, and Ethan and Helie decided to be part of it.

After a Challenge awards dinner that weekend, Ethan told his mom he might like to try counseling again. But he wanted to do it at the Dempsey Center.

“The people just seemed nice,” Ethan said.

Originally, he’d been concerned that going to the Dempsey Center would “be like in shows or movies where you sit around in a circle and talk about your feelings.”

“I did not want that,” he said.

Instead, he found a counselor who used games to connect with him one-on-one. No circles or group discussions about feelings needed.

Helie, who felt like she was entering a downward spiral, got her own counselor at the Dempsey Center several months later.

“One of the goals that we set when I started going to the Dempsey Center was, OK, just set a goal to cook dinner two nights a week. Even if it’s pulling a frozen dinner out of the freezer, you’re still cooking it, you’re still having dinner,” she said. “It was learning to set small goals for myself, and if I didn’t meet those goals, don’t get disappointed.”

Both mother and son say they feel better going to the center.

“Just having that peace of mind that … other people in my same situation were having the same feelings and going through the same thing, that daily tasks are overwhelming,” Helie said. “Just having that kind of reiterated to me that this doesn’t make you crazy, this is what people experience, really helped me get to a better place.”

They joined the Challenge again this year, with plans to walk the 5K. Ethan has raised more than $3,200, largely with donations from friends and family.

It is something his dad would have liked.

“If anyone ever came and asked him for a donation, he would always do it,” Helie said. “We had kids knock on our door from the soccer or the baseball team and even if we’d already bought the booklet they were selling, he’d buy another one. They always knew the house to come to. They knew he’d buy multiple.”

Ethan has already set his goal for next year: $10,000. Maybe he will hold a golf tournament, he said. He and his dad both loved golf.

But for now, he and his mother are getting ready for this weekend’s Challenge. The fundraiser will be held Saturday and Sunday and will include run, walk and cycling events, as well as entertainment, food, beer, wine and a children’s fun zone at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston.

Last year’s Challenge, the first after Seth’s death, was emotional. This one may be, too.

“Just thinking about the day and what it stands for — what you’re raising money for, knowing how many people actually need that help and they don’t know that it’s there,” Helie said.


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