Since Patrick Dempsey opened the Dempsey Center in 2008 to honor his mother, the actor has been able to give back to the community where he grew up and support families — like his own — impacted by cancer.
The Grey’s Anatomy alum, 53, spoke at The Atlantic’s People v. Cancer event in New York City on Tuesday (hosted in partnership with SurvivorNet) about the joy he gets from offering free quality of life cancer care at the center, located in his hometown of Lewiston, Maine.
“I’m really grateful to be a part of this, and to see the impact of the center is making within the community and the state of Maine is a beautiful thing,” Dempsey told PEOPLE after the event.
He adds, “It’s an inspiring thing, and working with people who have the intention to improve other people’s lives in an altruistic way — that’s what the meaning of life is about, in my opinion, and we need more of that.”
After a long battle with ovarian cancer, Dempsey’s mother, Amanda, passed away in 2014. Since her first diagnosis in 1997, her cancer reoccured over 12 times.
“When there is a cancer diagnosis in the family, it’s devastating and you’re never the same after that — you’re changed in a profound way,” Dempsey said. “But through her experience, we’ve created the Dempsey Center in her memory, and hopefully we’re improving people’s lives. Sometimes in the darker side of life, there comes a light side as well.”
During the Q&A after his talk on stage, a mother with cancer asked the actor if he could provide some examples of things his own mother shared with him during her journey so that she could share them with her two sons.
“Stories… Tell them about your life,” Dempsey answered, as he teared up. “Your kids want to know about your journey and your childhood, and you want to clear the table before they go… or not go. I’m very grateful that I had that conversation and that she had it with me, so she was free to go, too.”
Demspey recently returned to Lewiston for the annual The Dempsey Challenge, a walk, run, bike experience that benefits the center. Dempsey comes back each year, since it started in 2009, to participate, and says the idea is to inspire people to improve their health.
“You feel better if you exercise — you’re healthier and certainly going into getting treatment. So, the stronger person is the better the outcome,” he told PEOPLE.
And outside of his work with the Dempsey Center, the Can’t Buy Me Love star plans to honor his mother during the holidays through one sweet gesture.
“My mom has one particular dish that she’ll make that no one will eat, but we’ll do it for her,” the actor laughs. “It was like a squash dish that no one liked, but it was mandatory to have at Thanksgiving dinner.”
Dempsey’s fondest memory tied to the dish was when his grandfather came to visit his family and leaned down on the table, unaware that the leaf of the table holding the squash was broken, which caused it to “[fly] into the wall.”
“It was sort of the appropriate outcome of that dish — to basically hit the wall,” Dempsey said with a smile.
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