Boston Red Sox’s Pitcher, Jon Lester, Nears Milestone as a Cancer Survivor

October 3, 2011


Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large-cell lymphoma on August 31, 2006, an aggressive form of cancer. It was a tumultuous time for the emerging pitcher as his career began to take shape. One day he was on the field, then suddenly, his time was spent in hospitals enduring treatment rather than standing on the baseball field he loved.


The Red Sox acquired Lester in the 2002 draft as a player who showed great potential. He started his amateur career with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Lester was nominated pitcher of the year in 2005 by the Eastern League and Red Sox Minor League pitcher of the Year.


Things were going well for the then 22-year-old. Towards the end of August 2006 he was placed on a 15-day disabled list after back pain, originally thought to be a result from an accident he was in a month earlier.


However, his sore back was the result of a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which had attacked his lymph nodes. His life changed abruptly as he spent time focused on treatment and beating the cancer.


He underwent treatment at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA. While back in his home state, he stayed with his parents in Puyallup, WA to focus on treatment, recovery, and how to get back into the game.


While home, Lester did his best to live a normal life and not let cancer take over. That was one of the most important aspects of his recovery.


“I tell people now, they always ask, ‘What’s some advice you can give me for going through treatment?’ I tell them, ‘Do what you want. If you’re feeling good, want to shoot some basketballs, go shoot some basketballs. If you want to go to the mall, go to the mall,” he told WEEI sports radio.


Just before Thanksgiving in 2006, tests showed his cancer was in remission. The chemotherapy treatments that left him weak and hairless were now behind him. It was time for him to begin his road to recovery and get back on the field.


Despite his willingness and desire to begin training at the professional level, his body was not entirely prepared. Lester attended Spring training in 2007 with the intention to focus on baseball, not his cancer survival.


“The first day that all the pitchers showed up, I was standing over in the corner talking to Josh [Beckett], and Dougie [Mirabelli] came up and gingerly reached his hand out to shake my hand,” Lester said.


His teammates saw a 23-year-old who had aged threes times and was now a frail person. This was not what he had envisioned as his return.


“Josh goes, ‘Jeez, Doug, you’re not going to break him. He’s not made of glass. He’s all right.’ But I had no eyebrows, just a deer-in-headlights look of trying to get back into the swing of things.”


Lester pushed himself as hard as his weak body could go, unnerving coaches and trainers. Coaches put restrictions on his practices so Lester could work through the mechanics of pitching again and build strength. This was not in Jon’s plan. Instead of making a comeback to the majors, he started pitching for the single-A Greenville.


His return had to be gradual which frustrated him.


“You probably heard me say it 100 times that spring. I wanted to be a baseball player. On my timetable, I wanted to go out faster,” he reflected.


It seemed if coaches were holding him back because of his battle with cancer several months earlier. What Jon wasn’t aware of was the need to adapt to the game and rebuild his strength, which he ultimately realized was for the best. His coaches, teammates, and trainers were looking out for him.


“Looking back on it, they did a great job. But at the time, I wanted to cuss them out every day. I wanted to move faster, go quicker, [and] throw more. I wanted to do the things I was used to doing, but the doctors were on the safe side.”


Lester ended up pitching in game 4 of the 2007 World Series, a huge accomplishment for him. It was his time to shine, to show the world he was back. And while he threw an excellent game, he didn’t feel like himself until almost a year later in 2008.


In that same year, as he was nearing his complete recovery his father John was diagnosed with lymphoma as well. For so long Lester attempted to block his cancer survival out of his life, to be known as an athlete and not a survivor. After it struck so close to home, he realized he had a lot to offer others, especially his own father.


“He’d call me some days and ask what I had gone through, what I’d felt. I think that really helped me because it’s somebody you know. When it’s your dad, it puts things in perspective. It helped me mature faster, going through what my dad went through.”


“I like to be known as that [cancer survivor]. I’ve matured in the fact that now, I don’t mind it. It helps people. I want to be able to do that, and I’m proud of what I’ve come from,” Lester said.


Jon is now 27-years-old and nearing his five-year survival, which many doctors refer to as being “cured”. He is excited about it and knows that while his past was tough, his experience connects him with a lot of people. He is using his survival to help others, to be a listener. A valuable lesson he’s learned is that most people want to talk about what they’ve gone through, to know someone understands and cares.


Jon is a listener. He offers his words of hope to those who need them. While he fought so long to avoid being defined as a cancer survivor, his continual survival is based on the life changing connection he shares with others.


He has been married to his wife, Farrah for almost three years and they are raising their 13-month-old son, Hudson. Jon Lester’s survival has put life into perspective, knowing that baseball isn’t all that’s important. He is motivated to help others and actively raise awareness for cancer. Jon Lester is a survivor doing what he can to help others survive.