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Bethesda Magazine: Montgomery County Man With Rare Cancer Honored as NIH Fundraising Force
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Andrew Lee knows how to make an entrance.
As politicians, researchers and business people mingled at the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Friday morning, the roar of an exhaust could be heard through the windows of the meeting room.
Before you saw Lee, you could hear his car coming. Heads turned to the parking lot as the bright orange 2015 Nissan GT-R pulled across several parking spaces in front of the meeting room’s windows.
Lee emerged with a smile. The 22-year-old former Kensington resident, who now lives in Silver Spring, has proven to be a fundraising force for NIH, the cutting-edge medical research center in Bethesda.
Last year, he presented a check for $200,000 to the research center’s foundation. Since then, he said, he’s raised about $150,000 more. He was back at NIH—where he receives regular treatment for a rare form of kidney cancer as part of a medical trial—to be presented with the William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award by Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Lee is the president and CEO of Driven to Cure, a charity he started with the help of his father, Bruce Lee, after being diagnosed with stage 4 Hereditary Leiomyomatosis and Renal Cell Cancer when he was 19.
The rare form of genetic kidney cancer has been reported in about 100 families worldwide. Dr. Marston Linehan, who has studied the cancer since 1982, described it Friday as “one of the most aggressive types of kidney cancer.”
Despite this, Andrew Lee has found a passion in fundraising by coupling it with his other passion—cars. Lee’s parents bought him the Nissan GTR, a high-end sports car that retails for more than $100,000, after he received the diagnosis. It was his dream car.
And while Lee drives the 700-horsepower vehicle to help escape daily life, he’s also turned it into a potent fundraising tool at car shows. He has signed up auto parts manufacturers, high-end car tuners and, lately, regional businesses to support his fundraising efforts for cancer research.
Driven to Cure was formed to raise money for rare kidney cancer research, but given its growing success, Lee is broadening its mission to raise money for all forms of rare cancer.
On Friday, Franchot noted that the Schaefer Award is given to state residents who help the community, aid the vulnerable and work to improve the lives of Marylanders. It’s named after the former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor.
Franchot said Friday that Lee embodies Schaefer’s spirit of public service.
“You’re doing something, as you put it, that is bigger than yourself,” Franchot said to Lee. “It’s very cool and it’s very effective.”
Jennie Luca, the CEO of the Children’s Inn, described Lee as a role model to others being treated at the center.
“Andrew serves as a real-life superhero to the children we have at the Inn,” Luca said.
She said NIH has provided him with treatment and assistance in raising money, but he’s been able to grow the charity into something that will ultimately help NIH even more.
Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen described Lee as a “beacon” for people facing adversity.
“Your strength, your courage is an inspiration,” Floreen said. “You’re really the king of cool.”
Lee, a graduate of Georgetown Prep High School, took the compliments in stride.
“You start a nonprofit because it’s something you’re passionate about,” Lee said. “You never think you’re going to win an award. It’s seriously motivating for the future. I’m really excited about 2018.”
He said his health outlook is “always unknown,” but since resuming treatment in September at NIH, his tumor has gotten smaller.
He had to take a break from fundraising from July to September because his condition worsened, he said. But, his current treatment doesn’t have side effects.
“I see people in much worse situations than myself,” Lee said. “I’m not going to complain.”
Linehan said the research into the cancer Lee and others have could provide insights into other types of cancer because it requires understanding the genes that cause it. That could lead to the development of targeted gene therapies for other forms of cancers.
“This is a very, very important type of cancer,” Linehan said. “If it weren’t for these brave faces working with us at NIH, we would have made no progress.”
Outside the meeting room, Lee gave Franchot a tour of the car and showed off its after-market parts, such as a wide-body kit, seats stitched by hand with an orange cancer ribbon by his friend and the bright orange paint job—a custom color made for Lee’s car by the paint company BASF. Orange is the color chosen by the kidney cancer awareness movement.
Representatives of sponsors such as the OC Car Show and Jersey Mike’s Subs were on hand with big checks totaling more than $7,500 in donations.
Lee said running the charity has turned into his full-time job, but he hasn’t taken a break from the road. He’s racked up about 20,000 miles on the car, driving it around the county and traveling to area car shows.
“It’s not a garage queen,” Lee said.
After making a noticeable entrance, Lee wasn’t in a hurry to leave Friday. He stuck around talking to friends and family and had a long discussion with the father of a patient at the Inn, who said his own child is a sports car fan. Lee and the man exchanged numbers and Lee said he would take the child for a ride.
Driven to Cure accepts donations on its website.
Andrew Lee interviewed at the Las Vegas SEMA auto show: