Patrick Dempsey on Cycling and Cancer

Rememberances at the Dempsey Challenge. Courtesy of Rousseau Photography.

With all the controversy swirling around Lance Armstrong, it's tempting to turn your back on it all, including LiveStrong. I'm as disgusted with the drama as anyone—the lying, the cover-ups, the coverage. But a recent conversation with actor Patrick Dempsey, of Grey's Anatomy fame, reminded me that cycling has real power beyond all the scandals. Dempsey, who founded a cancer center in Maine after his mother contracted the disease, is prepping for the foundation's annual charity ride, scheduled for the second weekend in October. He says that in four years of participating in the Dempsey Challenge he's witnessed cycling's ability to empower patients, to galvanize communities for good, and to raise money that can affect change.

Dempsey spoke with us about his center's upcoming fundraiser and the importance of not giving up on charity events. Don't miss a big list of rides and walks after the interview.

Tell me a bit more about the Dempsey Challenge.
We started the Dempsey Challenge four years ago as a way to raise money for the Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing. We have raised over a million dollars for the center each year of the challenge, and this year we’ll have more than 3,500 participants over the three days of the event (October 12-14). I’d say 99 percent of the participants have a personal connection to someone with cancer, whether they’re cancer patients themselves or they have a family member or friend going through it. It makes you realize just how pervasive this disease is.

Why a bike ride?
I picked the bike because I love cycling. I love the speed, the sound, and the rhythm of it all. We felt that a riding event was not only a great way to do a fundraiser but, more importantly, a great way to get people active. The Dempsey Center is focused on improving the lives of people with cancer and also the lives of their families, friends, and communities. Getting people out and riding gives them a better chance at a better quality of life. At the end of the day, we’re trying to inspire people to lead healthy, active lives.

How did you come to this?
My mother was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the spring of 1998. When we started thinking about her care, I asked around in her community in Lewiston, Maine, if there was somewhere that provided support services for cancer patients. The answer was no, but the community was open to the idea and supportive. So we founded the Dempsey Center four years ago. We have a full-time staff of 15 to 20, and the center gives support to 200 to 300 patients each year. We focus on support and care, with treatments like acupuncture, massage, and reiki; nutritional education so people are eating well; and also practical support, like helping patients know what available grants are out there.

How is your mother now?
She’s had several bouts of it since 2008. It’s a slow-growing tumor that keeps coming back. But she’s a resilient woman and will keep fighting. She’s also a volunteer now at the Dempsey Center. I think the center’s success is because of volunteers like her, who have gone through or are going through cancer. When new patients and families start fighting cancer, it’s nice for them to be able to know that others have been through it before them and be supported by people with experience and practical advice.

There are lots of benefit rides for cancer. Why is there such a link between cycling and the disease?
Cycling is a good metaphor for fighting cancer. If you look at a cycling team, everyone has a role, and you’re all trying to support a leader toward a goal. Cancer is the same way. The patient is the leader who is out to win, but they can’t always do it without a good support system, from good doctors and medical staff to supportive families and communities. Like the domestiques in cycling who are constantly going back to the cars to get bottles and food for their leaders, caregivers have their roles to play and can make all the difference between their leader winning.

It’s hard to talk about cycling and cancer without mentioning Lance and LiveStrong. What’s your opinion on all the developments?
I’m reading The Secret Race right now, which is both fascinating and unfortunate. There’s certainly a generation of cyclists who couldn’t have survived or excelled without doing something. But the book makes it clear that doping has a long history in the sport, even from the start of the Tour de France. That’s not a justification. It’s still a very unfortunate situation.

As for Lance, I think it’s important to remember that what he did for the sport, especially here in the U.S. It was very profound. And apart from just the sporting side of it, the LiveStrong group does a lot of good. Lance’s situation is definitely a setback at this point, but hopefully people can dissociate the scandals from the good.

Still, do you think about backing the Challenge away from cycling because of the stigma of Lance?
No, never. I still love cycling. Even in the last eight or 10 years, when it was riddled with scandal, it is still an amazing sport. It has incredible athletes who are fearless. And on the most basic level, I just love the freedom of cycling. You go out and ride and, at the end of the day, it makes you feel good.

Besides, our event is different than LiveStrong. The Dempsey Challenge is about getting people out on bikes and interacting with them. When you listen to the stories of people who have fought or are fighting this disease, it moves you. The Challenge is about that dialogue and support. And for many survivors, the challenge of training for an event like this and then doing it can be a healthy part of the mourning process.

The Dempsey Challenge is just one of numerous charity sporting events to support cancer. We've compiled a list of some big events below, but check with local shops and civic centers for others near you:

Avon Walk for Breast Cancer: Seven events in major urban centers around the U.S.

Dempsey Challenge: The fourth annual event takes place October 12-14. Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson, Chris Horner, and Ted King will all attend.

Levi's GranFondo: Leipheimer's NorCal ride is said to be one of the best rides around and partly benefits LiveStrong.

Light the Night Walk: Five-kilometer walks around the country to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Pelotonia: A huge event in Columbus, Ohio, to raise money for research at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure: Hundreds of fundraisers, including walks, rides, and even equestrian events around the country and world.

Team LiveStrong Events: Runs, rides, and triathlons to support Armstrong's foundation.

—Aaron Gulley

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