A Loving Mom and an Army General Inspired Dr. Lee to Fight Cancer

Justin Lee, M.D., was just 13 years old when his mother was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 36. “I wanted to do something, so I thought I’d go into medicine and see if I could fix my mother’s diabetes,” he says.

Years later while attending medical school at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Dr. Lee’s focus shifted when he studied under an Army urologist—Major General Thomas “Pre” Ball. 

“I watched and learned from him as a student on rotations,” he says. “I really admired his professionalism and how he treated people. Through General Ball, I saw that urologists really get to make a big difference in a patient’s life because many of the cancers we treat have a very good cure rate. I thought I had a really good opportunity to benefit patients with urology. If the cancer is caught early, someone with bladder cancer, prostate cancer, kidney cancer or testicular cancer generally has a pretty good chance of being cured surgically.”

Dr. Lee decided to specialize in urological oncology while he continued his medical education at MD Anderson Cancer Center—one of the largest cancer centers in the world.

“At that time, we always did open surgery at MD Anderson,” Dr. Lee explains. “When I first saw robotic surgery and the difference it made in patient recovery, I felt it was going to revolutionize the way urological cancers were treated—and it has.”

Today, Dr. Lee is director of robotics at USMD Prostate Cancer Center in Arlington—a role that has allowed him to help shepherd a good many men and their families through their journey with prostate cancer. It is the kind of meaningful work he first envisioned doing when he was 13.

“The most rewarding thing about what I do is help someone have a good outcome. To have the ability to tell someone that they are ‘cancer free’ is pretty powerful,” he says.

Frank Peugh has heard those coveted words come from Dr. Lee’s lips. He first met Dr. Lee when his family physician sent him to Dr. Lee following a spike in his PSA level. A biopsy revealed Frank had prostate cancer.

“Dr. Lee explained all my treatment options. There were four or five. He did not push one over another, but I chose the robot-assisted prostatectomy for several reasons,” Frank says. “It was less invasive and my hospital stay was short—not even a day. There was very little pain associated with it, and I didn’t have to go home wearing a catheter.”

Nearly four years post surgery, Frank is thriving.

“Essentially, I’ve been cancer free from the day of the surgery. No side effects or residuals or anything,” he says. “Dr. Lee is the best surgeon I’ve ever had. And I’ve undergone several surgeries—including an aortic aneurism. I don’t want to say Dr. Lee walks on water, but he comes pretty close.”

Sherry, Frank’s wife of 25 years, is a fan, too. “I have every confidence in the world in Dr. Lee. I love him dearly,” she says.

Dr. Lee is mindful of the enormous trust patients like Frank and their families place in him.

“It’s a privilege you’re given as a surgeon, especially, and as a doctor in general, when patients  allow you to put your hands inside their body to, hopefully, fix whatever problem they may have—in my case, cancer. You have to treat that with a lot of respect,” he says.

That respect—and trust—is built over time with every interaction between doctor and patient. Yet, for Dr. Lee, that bond isn’t a formal relationship, but rather a natural outgrowth of the way he is and has always been. 

“It’s hard for me to explain what the doctor-patient relationship is because I don’t think of it that way,” he explains. “My parents raised me a certain way—taught me to treat people the way I’d want to be treated. At 74, my dad still says ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir,’ and treats people with respect. So I don’t treat patients differently than I would treat somebody’s dad or a best friend.”

His ability to put his patients and their loved ones at ease—along with his expert training and exceptional surgical skills—have played a major role in some very happy outcomes.

“Dr. Lee is amazing at his job doing robotic surgeries. My husband is a survivor—six years cancer free. I cannot thank him enough for saving my husband’s life and our connection to one another," says Judy Richardson.

Dennis Dupuis echoes Judy’s feelings. “I had a robot-assisted radical prostatectomy 4.9 years ago by Dr. Lee,” he says. “He’s a great surgeon and a great guy. I was 49 at the time of diagnosis. Getting zeros so far.”

Dr. Lee understands that patients are very thankful when their doctors do a good thing for them. But his patients help him, too. “I think they’ve all made me a little bit better physician,” he says.

One of the most important things he’s learned along the way is that the chance for a good outcome is greater when his patients are well informed.

“With every patient, I try to give them a thorough education about the kind of cancer they have, what it means, what their treatments options are so they can make their own decisions,” he explains. “I try not to skip over anything. I want them to understand that we have a very good opportunity to cure their prostate cancer. And if not, then there is a very good likelihood that even if they need additional treatment, prostate cancer won’t cause their demise. A man can still live a long life even though he may need additional treatment.”

And for the fortunate ones who have not been diagnosed with prostate cancer, Dr. Lee offers this expert advice:

“Men need to be very proactive with their own health,” he says. “Doctors are very good, but it’s your health. You only have one life. PSA is not the greatest screening test—everybody knows that—but ignoring it, which some people are doing now, doesn’t make any sense. Unfortunately, we are seeing from recent data that there’s an uptick in the amount of high-grade cancer being diagnosed. The earlier you catch it, the better chance you have of curing it. Right now, the PSA is still the only guide we have for early detection, so I advise men to have a discussion with their physician—whether it’s their urologist or primary care doctor—and to be very proactive for their own healthcare.”

If you’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer and would like to know more about your treatment options, contact USMD Prostate Cancer Center online or call 1-888-PROSTATE (1-888-776-7828).

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