Summer 2009

A Ball Player Who Happened to Have Cancer

Hutch Award winner Jon Lester has struggled with his identity as cancer survivor




A big league baseball player is measured by his numbers. Usually, that’s all we need to know. More often than not, that’s all the players want their fans to know—just the numbers.

Jon Lester is no exception. These are the numbers he doesn’t mind talking about: In the 2007 World Series, he pitched five and two-thirds shutout innings for the Boston Red Sox, gave up three hits and three walks, collected three strikeouts and became just the third pitcher in history to win a series-clinching game in his first post-season start.

Last year, his 3.21 ERA led to a 16-6 record, and he emerged as the top lefty in the American League. Early in the season, he threw a no-hitter, striking out nine of the 29 batters he faced, 86 of his 130 pitches strikes. In March before the 2009 season started, Boston offered him a five-year, $30 million contract extension. These numbers—baseball, really—he can handle.

But there are certain numbers that Lester has struggled to share with others: inexplicably, a 15-pound loss towards the end of 2006, and the long streak of days when he didn’t feel like the pitching giant featured on baseball cards—a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder who threw 97 mph fastballs.

“When I pitched, as soon as the game was over, I could go to sleep by my locker. That’s how exhausted I was,” he said about the end of the 2006 season. At one point, he couldn’t even get out of bed.

The diagnosis was a shocker, not the kind of thing a 22-year-old embarking on a major professional sports career wants to hear: anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, a blood cancer.

And then more numbers seared themselves into his memory: six rounds of chemotherapy at the Hutchinson Center, every 21 days, three to four hours at a time; blood drawn every 10 days. Then, he buried it all.

“When I first got back to baseball, I didn’t want to talk about it,” Lester said. “I wanted to get away from it. But every day, someone wanted to ask me about it.”

“I think he wants to just get back on the baseball field, be a baseball player and not be the cancer guy that plays baseball,” one of his teammates told the media upon his return in 2007.

“From Cancer Survivor to Ace Pitcher,” the headlines insisted, and all he wanted was to be a pitcher.

“At some point, people started asking me about baseball instead of cancer,” he said. “It was a relief … and that’s all I asked people, to concentrate on baseball.”

And yet that reticence to speak about it, the calm and collected way he went about his business, quickly turned him into a role model for cancer survivors. During an ESPN SportsCenter interview a day after his no-hitter in May 2008, Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner, surprised him with a phone call.

“On behalf of all cancer survivors in the United States and around the world, we want to congratulate you,” said Armstrong, who fought cancer for many years and now leads one of the most influential cancer foundations in the world. “We’re all proud of you.”

Lester didn’t share that he had thrown his no-hitter with a heavy heart. Only a few weeks earlier, his father, John, had been diagnosed with cancer, a slow-growing form of lymphoma, and was undergoing treatment, losing his hair just as he did. Jon had already set aside a Red Sox cap for his dad.

During those difficult days of spring for the Lester family, John told his son that he was proud of him, always had been. But he was even more proud of him now that he truly understood what he had gone through. Jon thought of mom, Kathy, his Little League baseball coach. Cancer had stricken two of the people closest to her, but she held strong and the family followed suit.

A few days after his ESPN interview, Jon was back at the station to talk about how cancer had affected his family. He wasn’t going to shy away from the topic anymore, and if it helped someone—anyone—all the better.

“It’s easier to talk about cancer these days because it’s not always a death sentence,” Lester said earlier this year, after receiving the Hutch Award in Seattle. “We’re looking at new forms of drugs, new ways to fight it … and with everything that we have discovered, it’s helped people, because you have a chance if you fight it, you have a chance to live.”

The award once again focused attention on his fight against cancer, but this time, he didn’t mind.

“The Hutch Award is a great honor, no matter how you look at it. The group of guys associated with that award is amazing,” Lester said. “It’s a great honor to win it, and yes, it’s even a greater honor to win it as a cancer survivor.”

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