Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester is one of my heroes. Not only because he’s a bad-ass left-handed pitcher who delivers for my favorite team but also because he’s just celebrated a milestone worth coveting: 5 years of being cancer-free.
Lester was just 22 years old when he was scratched from the Sox lineup in late August 2006 because of back pain. At that point in his rookie season, he was 7-2 and his pitching was on fire. After a few tests, doctors at Mass General determined that his lymph nodes were enlarged, and a few days later they delivered unthinkable news to an uncomprehending pitcher: Lester had anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, a rare and fast-spreading cancer. The Red Sox announced the news on September 2, 2006, and manager Terry Francona said that Lester was beginning a “journey that few us can comprehend.”
I’m almost embarrassed to type the words “being diagnosed with cancer is devastating.” Duh. If only I could invent new words to convey the devastation. If only. For a 22-year-old major league pitcher, I imagine the news was shocking and gut-wrenching, to say the least. As a 40-year-old non-pro athlete, the news of my own diagnosis was shocking and gut-wrenching. Duh.
Lucky (?) for Lester, his type of cancer is non-Hodgkins lymphoma and is highly treatable, with a cure rate of upwards of 80 percent. I’m sure his youth and his physical fitness helped, too, but no matter who you are, the diagnosis is a bitch, and Tito was right, Les was on a journey that few can comprehend.
No one thinks it’s going to happen to them, but cancer bulldozes through millions of people’s lives every single day–atheletes, celebrities, and regular people alike. Sometimes I think: if someone like Jon Lester isn’t safe from cancer, who is??
Not me, obviously.
Lester and I have a similar attitude toward our cancer. “It sucks,” he said in more than one interview. “But you can’t let it define you.”
“I hate hospitals to begin with,” he says. “I hate needles. I hate anything related to doctors. Getting blood drawn every 10 days [during chemo] … it drags on. You’re tired all the time. You want to do stuff, but you can’t. You’ve got to watch where you go because of germs. It’s not something you would wish upon anybody.”
Yep, that’s right.
Lester says as a pro athelete, his pursuit of excellence helped him demand a willingness to accept constant physical challenges, something with which cancer patients are quite familiar. He spoke of his frustration of feeling weak, of wanting to be active but his body saying no. He learned to listen to his body and to accept that he wasn’t in control of every aspect of the treatment and recovery process. I’m no pro, but I know that feeling — of wanting to overcome but being thwarted at every turn but none other than your own body. Suck.
Lester endured 6 cycles of chemo and lost his hair but not his drive. He wanted to pitch again, and to be known as a great pitcher, not as a cancer survivor.
On October 28–barely more than two years after being diagnosed–Lester started and earned a win in the final game of the 2007 World Series against the Rockies. The following May, he pitched a no-hitter against the Royals.
I’d say Lester did it. He’s a pitcher first, and a cancer survivor second. Throw hard, Les!