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A journey from cancer to champion for Sox' Lester

Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / February 17, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Winning the deciding game of the World Series, the part everyone else remembers and celebrates, he doesn't dwell on, maybe because Jon Lester is determined to be known as something other than Celebrity Cancer Boy.

But some of the tender mercies along the way, the improbable sweeteners to an arduous journey that took him from the blunt harshness of a doctor's diagnosis to the champagne-splattered embraces of his Red Sox teammates last October, Jon Lester is not liable to forget.

Here is one. The day before he was scheduled to undergo a chemotherapy treatment, he and his uncle arose at 4 a.m. and with a guide drove through the Olympic Mountains to the Humptulips River, a swath of white water that cuts through the mountains of his native Washington state. There, in the pouring rain, he landed the biggest salmon he'd ever caught, a 40-pound king. The next day, when he showed up at the hospital, his white blood count was so low they had to postpone the chemo treatment, and the nurses said they couldn't understand why he wasn't sick as a dog. Lester shrugged and said he felt fine.

"I smoked that fish," he said, "and we've been eating it for almost a year. My dad still has some."

Here is another. Lester came to Red Sox training camp a year ago, after completing his treatment for a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma - six courses of chemotherapy, once every 21 days, the stuff dripping into his right (nonpitching arm) on a Thursday, knocking him back from normal activity until Sunday. Lester was intent on claiming a spot on the big-league team for Opening Day. Call it denial, call it stubbornness, but Lester was not happy when the club decided his health would not allow it, and sent him to start the season in Greenville, S.C., the kind of outpost in the lower minor leagues Lester thought he'd long since left behind.

"We were trying to keep in perspective what he needed to do from a baseball-calendar standpoint, factoring in the medical information, trying to set what a realistic goal was for him," pitching coach John Farrell said. "So I think at times that didn't mesh with what his time frame was. I don't think there was friction, but frustration. It wasn't happening as fast as he wanted it."

Lester remained in Greenville for just three starts, over the span of a couple of weeks. Waste of time? Hardly. Lester met a nursing student named Farrah Johnson, who has been his girlfriend ever since. They even go deer hunting together. Down in Georgia, where Lester just bought a house south of Atlanta, Lester saw Johnson shoot her first deer. Not everyone's idea of a love story, maybe, but it will do Lester just fine. "That made my year," he said.

Then there were the weekly text messages from his manager, Terry Francona, who Lester says has become like "a second dad." And the sarcastic barbs of teammate Josh Beckett, who will prod him by saying, "You beat cancer, this should be easy." And one thing he won't forget from that October night, the tears of joy on the faces of John and Kathy Lester, standing in a corridor outside the visitors' clubhouse in Denver's Coors Field.

"I think," he said, yesterday, "in some ways it meant more to them than to me."

Getting the news

He knows it's an illusion, but the difference in Jon Lester physically is so pronounced - at 225 pounds, he's 20 pounds heavier than a year ago, all added muscle - Francona said he looks taller.

"After everything he went through," Francona said, "to see him setting the pace in drills rather than just trying to keep up, it's exciting. He looks stronger, stronger off the mound."

Lester turned 24 Jan. 7. He is 18 months removed from the night he was sitting alone in a Boston hospital room, awaiting the results of a biopsy performed on alarmingly swollen lymph nodes - there was one on his pelvis, another on his chest, a third on his collarbone.

He knew there was something wrong - he'd been having night sweats, and he'd lost almost 25 pounds, down to 190, in the previous two or three weeks. But his blood work was inconclusive, and an infectious disease specialist and an oncologist had just visited, telling him that the biopsy would let them know whose services were required.

The oncologist came back. "Where are your parents?" he asked. John and Kathy Lester had run out to grab something to eat. "You can tell me," Lester said. "I know what it is, because you're here. I'm not dumb."

To this day, Lester says, he can't tell you the full name of the disease that abruptly halted his budding pro career - he was 7-2 in 2006, becoming the first lefthanded Sox rookie to win his first five decisions and combining with another Sox rookie, Jonathan Papelbon, on a one-hit shutout against the Kansas City Royals in Fenway Park. He left it to his father, a sergeant in the Pierce County sheriff's office back in Washington, to spend hours in front of a computer, researching a blood cancer known as non-Hodgkin's anaplastic large-cell lymphoma.

For Lester, this was sufficient: "The oncologist came in after all the tests and he said, 'If somebody put a gun to your head and said, "We're going to give you cancer, pick one," this one would be the one to pick. It's very treatable. The cure rate is very good.'

"I know it's a cliché," Lester said, "but that's all I needed to hear. Let's just get on with it."

At Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, his oncologist was Dr. Arnold Friedman. He began his chemotherapy there, then elected to continue treatment at another world-class facility under another world-class oncologist, Dr. Oliver Press, much closer to home: the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, a short ride from his hometown of Puyallup.

The key for Lester, when he was feeling well enough, was to stay busy. Fishing, riding the bike, lifting a few weights. Late that fall, he was told that he would require just two more treatments. This time, he didn't rely on a text message. He called Francona, who was at baseball's winter meetings. Francona wept at the news.

"You get busy," Francona said yesterday, "then all of a sudden the emotion hits you, it overwhelms you. You can't help but get close."

Francona anticipated that Lester would not embrace the team's decision to bring him along slowly, knowing that his body had been through an ordeal. "It was hard at times," Francona said, "because he was getting frustrated. But we weren't going to budge."

Lester did not want to be singled out for special treatment. He wanted to pitch as much as the others, do the same drills, prepare the same way.

In retrospect, he said, he's glad the Sox did it their way.

"I appreciate the way they handled it," he said. "If they had just let me go, I probably would have gotten hurt, just from the workload at that time. My body wasn't ready for it."

Uncharted territory

The goal last season, Lester said, was just to get back to the big leagues. It took him almost to the end of July. While continuing his rehabilitation in Pawtucket, the team's Triple A farm club, he experienced some inflammation in his forearm, and Sox officials decided he should abandon throwing his cut fastball, a key pitch in his repertoire, because they thought it was aggravating his condition.

On July 23, the Sox recalled him from Pawtucket. He was incensed a month later when the Sox sent him down to Double A Portland for one start. It was more of a procedural move than anything else - they were skipping Lester's turn in the rotation, and wanted to keep him at regular rest. "I understood, but I was still ticked off," he said. "But maybe it motivated me a little more."

Farrell noticed a difference upon his return. "I think when he came back, some things sunk in for him," said the pitching coach. "I think when he made a pitch he made a mistake with, he realized he didn't have be perfect to get a guy out. I think that allowed him to relax a little bit.

"Then he began to put things in proper perspective, thinking what he'd come through. He was a little more open, a little more trusting. We'd never had a case like this to compare to, so there was a feeling-out in our approach, and a feeling-out in how he accepted this information, and ultimately we forged more of a trusting, more open relationship."

Farrell also made a couple of adjustments in Lester's mechanics. He took away his full windup, having him start with his hands in front of him instead of overhead, and had him stand more upright when he was in the stretch. Soon, Lester was showing an improvement in command, though his velocity wasn't as consistent as he would have liked.

He made 12 appearances for the Sox, 11 starts, and did not lose a decision, going 4-0 with a 4.57 ERA. He was standing in the outfield during a workout before the World Series when Francona and Farrell told him that he would get the ball in Game 4 because Tim Wakefield had a bad shoulder and could not pitch.

With the Sox having won the first three games, there wasn't as much pressure on Lester, but still it was the World Series, and it provided an irresistible story line: cancer survivor pitches Series clincher. Lester did his part for the storybook crowd, pitching 5 2/3 scoreless innings, and in perhaps the game's defining moment, with the tying run on second base in the third inning, reaching back for something extra and striking out Matt Holliday, Colorado's best hitter.

When it was over, Francona spotted Lester's parents and gave them a hug. "It was impossible," he said, "to stay dry."

He wasn't talking about the champagne.

Lester, Johnson, and his parents made a brief appearance at the team party afterward, then went up to his hotel room and ordered room service. "I was tired," said Lester.

Inextricably linked

Now, it is a new spring, and Lester is here, more an exclamation point than a question mark. His name was linked to trade rumors involving Minnesota's Johan Santana, but the Sox passed on Santana, electing to stick with their kids. He is grateful for that, as well as for the outpouring of support he got from so many fans while he was ill. But he wishes now that everyone can move on.

"I don't want the attention for that," he said. "I want the attention for what I do on the field, good or bad. For me, I guess, because I'm new at this situation, it's almost embarrassing to be out in public and someone comes up to you and says, 'My mother had the same thing you did.' What do you say? I don't know what to say to make them feel better about their situation.

"But I can't go back in time and reverse that. I'm always going to have this history, but it doesn't make it comfortable."

There's no mistaking, though, the ease he brings with him to the mound.

"You look at his physical abilities, you see the determination and the competitiveness," Farrell said. "Because he's young, we know through repetition and experience he'll gain more consistency, but he profiles clearly as a middle- or upper-end starting pitcher."

"There's no reason to think he won't pick up from last year. He has such a bright future. He's got all the attributes."

And a little help along the way.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com

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