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Cancer-stricken youth combines two passions, promotes nationwide awareness

Andrew Lee is the founder and CEO of Driven to Cure and he’s paying it forward.

Andrew Lee, 23, travels the country in his dream car—Nissan GT-R—promoting awareness about kidney cancer and raising funds for the disease. (Photos courtesy of Driven to Cure)

BY ANNA SPIEWAK

Andrew Lee’s motto is “Built to Drive, Driven to Cure.” He’s thought of that phrase way before he even named his nonprofit organization— Driven to Cure Inc.— which today raises two things—awareness about rare kidney cancer and money to find a cure.

He’s well known in the automotive arena—he and his father, Bruce Lee, travel the country in his dream car—Nissan GT-R—which he’s rebuilt with his dad and painted bright orange—the color of kidney cancer—using a unique mix of BASF Glasurit 90 Line basecoat and Glasurit clearcoats. He’s been able to travel to high-end car shows, meet celebrities and give TV interviews. You could say Andrew is living his dream. But his life is not all it seems.

In fact, back in the spring of 2015, he was just a regular 19-year-old. Andrew had a girlfriend and a passion for cars, inspired by Paul Walker films “The Fast and the Furious.”

“In the movies, Paul Walker was always driving Japanese cars, so that’s kind of where I fell in love with GT-R’s,” he told BASF. Back then, however, Andrew was driving a Volvo station wagon.

He was also finishing up his first year at the University of New Hampshire, majoring in business, in hopes of following in his father’s footsteps in commercial real estate.

His plans came to a halt, however, his last day of freshman year at college.

As Andrew finished his last final and was back in his dorm room packing up, waiting for his father to pick him up, he suddenly felt sharp abdominal pain, which made him double over and collapse on the sidewalk. He was rushed to the hospital where everyone thought it was appendicitis and was ready to take him to surgery. That’s when a relative doctor suggested a CAT scan, which revealed it was not appendicitis, but multiple tumors that were causing internal bleeding. It was then that Andrew and his family found out he had a rare kidney cancer known as HLRCC, which has spread from his kidney to his pelvic bone. He was in Stage 4 of incurable carcinoma.

“It’s like the world comes to a stop,” said Bruce Lee, Andrew’s father. “Everything you’ve planned for, prepared for, just doesn’t prepare you for something like that.”

Andrew had no idea he had cancer. He was at the prime of his life and there were no symptoms. After closer scrutiny, it turned out his father and younger brother, Tommy, had the genetic mutation which could—in extremely rare cases—cause cancer, but didn’t for either of them.

“I, unfortunately, was the lucky one,” said Andrew.

After being seen at Mass General Hospital, doctors referred Andrew to the  National Institutes of Health (NIH), where researchers had some success with an experimental treatment program for his type of cancer. Thanks to a trial treatment program, doctors were able to prolong Andrew’s life after he was given only one year to live back in 2015. He’s been living day to day on experimental medicine since.

While others might break down when dealt such a horrific curveball in life, Andrew went in an entirely different direction. He decided to spend his time on Earth helping others and promoting awareness about his disease through establishing a non-profit organization that would also help raise funds to study his form of cancer. After his father decided to make Andrew’s biggest dream come true and buy him a Nissan GT-R—he now had a vehicle—both literally and figuratively—to do that.

“I figured someone my age has this amazing car, I’m so lucky, I have to be able to help others,” said Andrew. “I could turn it into a show car and continue doing what I love—driving the car and raising awareness about the disease.”

Kidney cancer affects 31,000 Americans and kills 11,900 of them annually, according to the American Cancer Society. While more common cancers, such as breast or lung, tend to get more attention, kidney cancer doesn’t get as much exposure, and Andrew vowed to change that.

As he left school to pursue his goal of helping others and started making rounds at various car shows throughout the East Coast, BASF came knocking on his door. The chemical company invited Andrew—at age 20—to not only attend but showcase his car at the famous  SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) in Las Vegas—the biggest specialty products trade event in the world and every car buff’s dream.

“It was the most unreal thing I have ever experienced. You don’t just get invited to SEMA,” said Andrew. “That’s on every guy’s bucket list to go there. And not only did I go, my car was there, it was awesome.”

Not only did Andrew get to showcase his car at SEMA and meet his idols such as famed auto designer Chip Foose and former NASCAR driver Richard Petty, but he also set up a small donation jar, told his story and raised awareness about kidney cancer.

“People were walking away with tears coming out of their eyes after hearing Andrew’s story,” said Dan Bihlmeyer, North America Marketing Director, Automotive Refinish Solutions, BASF. “His story became a platform for him to get visibility and it took his fundraising to a whole ‘nother level.”

Andrew meets former NASCAR driver Richard Petty at SEMA in Las Vegas.

Andrew gives a preview of his car to a 6-year-old fan, Savanna Esqueda, who had just come out of chemo treatments. She won her battle with kidney cancer and today is in remission.

BASF Automotive Refinish also donated $10,000 to Andrew’s cause and started a Paint-for-a-Purpose campaign. The refinish unit was able to match the formula that one of its customers had designed with Andrew, this new formula is now known as DTC Orange, a one-of-a-kind orange color—so that whenever a customer would purchase Andrew’s car color, all the proceeds would be donated to Driven to Cure. “Sometimes our paint does more than just look great, it enables someone to tell an incredible story and do incredible things,” Bihlmeyer added.

Thanks to Andrew’s exposure at SEMA, and his interview with a cable TV station, Nissan found out about Andrew’s cause and reached out to him to make a detailed model replica of his vehicle. More importantly, to date, Driven to Cure—Andrew’s grassroots movement—has not only increased visibility of rare kidney cancers but also donated $300,000 to the  Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). This nonprofit works with partners like Andrew to accelerate biomedical research and strategies to fight against diseases in the U.S. and across the world. Andrew’s donation to the FNIH specifically supports the research of W. Marston Linehan, M.D., Chief of Urologic Surgery & the Urologic Oncology Branch, Center of Cancer Research at National Cancer Institute. Linehan, an employee of NIH, not only treats Andrew but also pioneers the study of genetic basis of kidney cancer and is developing new approaches to treat multiple forms of the disease. DTC has received donations from all around the world—33 different countries to be exact—according to Bruce Lee.

To celebrate his brave altruism, FNIH named Andrew as the winner of the 2018  Charles A. Sanders, M.D., Partnership Award for his “unwavering commitment to advancing biomedical research on rare kidney cancers.” This annual award recognizes persons and/or organizations that have made significant contributions to the FNIH’s work to build, implement and nurture private-public partnerships in support of the mission of the NIH.

In 2017, the award was given to Richard J. Hodes, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Aging as well as the Eli Lilly and Co. (Lilly). The previous year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Pfizer won the award. Andrew is the youngest recipient of this prestigious accomplishment.

“When you sit down, and you think about what Andrew is doing, what he has done, and what he continues to do, it’s the most selfless act that one can think of,” Robert Balthaser, Vice President of Advancement, FNIH, told BASF. “He’s a patient advocate inflicted by an incurable cancer and what he’s doing to create awareness and at the same time support cutting-edge medical research in renal cancer with one of the best doctors in the United States, who would’ve thought?”

Andrew might be living his dream, but the truth still stands—his type of cancer is incurable and he’s living day to day on experimental medicine. He had a rough patch for five months where he was bedridden with daily random fevers. But he’s still looking on the bright side of things. He’s currently on new treatment and says he’s been bouncing back. He hopes to do more shows after this winter and one day hit the million-dollar mark for his charity. One thing is for sure—he is not taking anything for granted.

“No matter what situation you’re given—always try to find the positive, that’s kind of what I did with mine,” he concluded. “I was diagnosed with an incurable rare kidney cancer, but I looked at it more that I’ve also been given the opportunity to affect everyone I meet in a positive way.”

To donate to Andrew’s charity, Driven to Cure, click on his  website.

Andrew poses with his girlfiend, Haley, at the backdrop of his show car.

Andrew attends one of the car shows with his family-- father, Bruce, mother, Sarah and younger brother, Tommy.

For media inquiries or to repurpose this article, contact:  anna.spiewak@basf.com or laura.partynski@basf.com.