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Former NCAA Basketball Player Calls CU Cancer Center Home

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Written by Taylor Abarca on April 12, 2016

Even before Thomas (TJ) Pugh, MD, grew to 6’10″, he loved the sport of basketball.

“It was sort of a religion for me,” says Pugh, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. “Playing basketball taught me great life lessons and the importance of being part of a team.”

In fact, the love of being part of something bigger than himself is what brought Pugh to the field of cancer research and care. In it, a primary care physician helps someone recognize a problem, specialists collaborate to ensure that they receive the best care possible, nurse navigators keep patients on a smooth track and health psychologists make sure they have a safe place to talk about their concerns. Many people working together to create the best possible outcome for a person. A team.

Pugh grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and attended the University of Kansas (KU) on a basketball scholarship. During his time at KU he played in the NCAA tournament for four years. His team also brought home four conference championships. In recognition of his success, he was one of seven athletes nationally to be awarded a post-graduate scholarship by the national collegiate athletic association (NCAA) for academic and athletic achievement.

“During my four years, we still rank among the top all-time nationally in total wins,” says Pugh. “IN sports, everyone wants to be remembered as a winner. I’m not sure how long that will last, but it is something I am proud of.”

Pugh started gravitating towards medicine after an experience he had with fans immediately after his last game in college.

“I remember we flew in very late in the evening after the game and there were thousands of people waiting for us to arrive,” Pugh recalls. “Two little kids came running out of the crowd; they were upset that our season was over. I ended up consoling them. In hindsight, I reflect on that moment as when I stopped being a basketball player; and started my journey toward becoming a doctor.”

Pugh obtained his medical degree from the University of Colorado and spent a year as an internal medicine intern at the University of Colorado Hospital.

“When I started med school I had no intention of going into cancer medicine,” he says. “Eventually I realized that I was good at communicating complicated medical problems and was motivated to help those with life threatening conditions.”

Pugh completed his residency training in Radiation Oncology at the University of Colorado Hospital, where he served as Chief Resident. He spent 5 years on faculty at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and recently returned to Colorado.

“I was always drawn to University of Colorado,” says Pugh. “From the beginning I felt that the University of Colorado Cancer Center would act as the epicenter for improving cancer care and promoting cancer research in the Rocky Mountain Region. I wanted to be a part of that.”

In the clinic, Pugh treats patients with genitourinary cancers including prostate, bladder, kidney, and testicular. His research has focused on improving quality of life and reducing side effects for men with prostate cancer.

“I want to help my patients continue their day-to-day lives and have more time to do the things they enjoy most,” says Pugh.