On the one hand, it is an event that no longer feels present. So much has happened in Jon Lester’s life over the last five years that the memory of being diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a rare, fast-spreading but highly treatable cancer of the lymph nodes, can seem distant.
Indeed, Lester does not recall the exact date of his diagnosis, did not realize that he will be taking the mound on Thursday against the Yankees on the fifth anniversary of the day when his medical condition became public in a press release.
On the other hand, the details of that frightful time -- such as the restaurant where his parents had gone to pick up food when the pitcher’s medical condition became known -- remain available to Lester in sharp relief. When the subject of his experience with cancer comes up, as it sometimes does, elements remain strikingly vivid.
“When I talk about it, it’s fresh. I can recall a lot about the story, a lot about what happened. A lot of other things that I’ve done in my life or happened to me, you remember bits and pieces, but I remember a lot of the little details of it,” Lester said. “It’s a weird time, a lot of different things happening in a short time. It ends up being a long story. You end up talking about those little details instead of offering the Cliff’s Notes version.”
And that is only fair, since Lester’s experience having cancer, and his subsequent status as a cancer survivor, is an undeniable part of who he is. It was a life-changing and life-shaping event, the sort of thing that elevates to prominence memories that in other contexts would be easily forgotten.
But it’s not something that he dwells on. Nor, five years removed from the period when he was diagnosed and then treated, and when cancer was an omnipresent element in his life, is his experience with cancer a memory that is always at hand.
In day-to-day life, it is rarely a topic of conversation with his wife, Farrah. Lester is busy enough chasing a 13-month-old son, Hudson, that there isn’t a lot of time to think about the past. There is only one photo that he encounters of himself during the period in 2006 when he was being treated, and even that he sees only when he’s back in Washington State.
“My mom and dad have one. The only time I see it is when I’m back at home. It’s actually next to my bed in my room,” Lester said. “It’s one my mom took, and it’s of me and my mom and dad’s dog. I’m bald, just laying in bed, kind of hanging out. That’s really the only one I’ve seen. I don’t know why they have it framed, but they do.
“It’s weird to see it. I think the biggest thing is the shaved head and how pale I am. That’s the biggest thing and weirdest thing to see.”
But because his medical history and status as a survivor is so well known, and because he is a public figure, it is inevitable that it will be a topic of not-infrequent conversation. And there is enough detachment from the experience that Lester is open and able to discussing it without being overwhelmed.
A MOTIVATED SECLUSION
In the initial days after Lester was diagnosed, he made an appearance at Fenway Park to see his teammates and address the media -- in no small part to thank the public for its support. But then he went back with his parents to Puyallup, Wash., where he was largely isolated from his profession.
“Once I found out, it was nice to come back into the clubhouse and see everybody,” Lester recalled. “But after that, I was just secluding myself away from everybody.”
His parents had their jobs to go to on a daily basis. Lester, then 22, had a great deal of time to himself, something that could have been daunting.
In that state of relative isolation, it would have been easy to lapse into listlessness. The chemotherapy treatments were, of course, physically exhausting.
“It seemed like the five days after a treatment were the hardest,” Lester said. “I’d get the treatment, then the next four days were like a pitching cycle. You’d get your treatment, the next day you’re sore and feel like crap, the next day you get progressively better.
“There were days when Day 2, Day 3, I felt worse than the day before and felt like I was heading the wrong direction. It’s not like when you take Advil because your head hurts and your headache goes away. You don’t see results. You don’t feel results.”
But even -- indeed, especially -- at times when he did not feel up to the task, he would still push himself to remain active. That, in some respects, was a reflection of how he benefited as a cancer patient from the mentality of a professional athlete whose pursuit of excellence demands a willingness to accept constant physical challenges.
And so, Lester would head to the gym in an effort to remain active. He acknowledges that he could not do much there, but the mere fact of leaving the house had undeniable benefit.
“Looking back on it, I didn’t get a lot out of it. It was just kind of that release,” Lester said. “Hunting, fishing was a big release. I know I worried my parents a lot doing that, because they both worked, so I was going out on my own.
“But for me, that was my time. That was good. 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.'
“You obviously have to be careful with different situations, but you can’t just sit at home, watching movies and doing crosswords and feel sorry for yourself. For me, I couldn’t do it. My mind doesn’t work that way. I used the gym and other places. I just needed to get out of there. Sometimes, I’d just go and drive around for half an hour to get out of the house.”
It would have been natural for Lester to have push baseball aside while enduring his treatments. It was, after all, a time when the physical reality of being able to compete seemed difficult to fathom.
But the pitcher did not approach the matter in that fashion. In November, while still undergoing regular chemo treatments, he asked the club to send him DVDs of himself on the mound, both from his rookie season in 2006 as well as from a 2005 Double-A campaign in which he had emerged as one of the top pitching prospects in the game.
Lester wanted to think about pitching, wanted to scrutinize his mechanics and to keep the idea of a return to the mound as near as possible. That being the case, throughout the treatment process, Lester had a target date to help motivate him.
He planned on getting to Fort Myers on Feb. 1 for spring training, a couple of weeks in advance of the mandatory date for pitchers and catchers to report. When he was declared cancer-free in late November 2006, just before Thanksgiving, that goal became realistic.
‘I WANTED TO BE A BASEBALL PLAYER’
Yet even though he had done everything he could to maintain and then add weight during and after his treatment, there was a transition process involved in getting back to baseball. That spring, it was impossible to view the then-23-year-old without thinking about his health and of the shock engendered just six months earlier by his diagnosis.
“I think when people think of cancer and cancer patients, they expect you to come out and look like your 80-year-old grandfather, kind of hunched over, barely walking,” Lester said. “I remember another small detail. 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.
“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.”
That spring and the early stretches of the 2007 season were at times frustrating for Lester. Physically, he felt strong, particularly compared to how he’d been in the final days of his 2006 season when, unbeknownst to him, he’d been pitching with cancer, and during an offseason when chemicals had sapped his strength.
He wanted to fit seamlessly into the mix with the other pitchers. He did not want to be restricted in deference to an illness of which he was now cured. Indeed, he wanted to be identified by his profession, and not by a medical condition.
At most turns, however, the Sox wanted to hold Lester back, to make sure that he didn’t push himself so aggressively as to risk injury. It had been made clear to Lester from the beginning that there would be a gradual progression in his return. He would be held out of big league spring training games, pitching only in the controlled setting of the minor league complex.
He would open the year in Single-A Greenville, the full-season affiliate furthest from the majors. Because he would be spending more than a month in the minors, he would be optioned once his rehab assignment was complete. As he progressed, he would face significant pitch and innings limits while the Sox carefully, steadily built up his workload.
In retrospect, Lester can acknowledge that the team did the right thing. But at the time, it was not the message that the young left-hander wanted to hear.
“You probably heard me say it 100 times that spring. I wanted to be a baseball player,” Lester said. “On my timetable, I wanted to go out faster. 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, throw more. I wanted to do the things I was used to doing, but the doctors were on the safe side.”
Yet even at a time when he was physically diminished, Lester would not accept that he should be incapable of dominance.
During the spring and when he was preparing to make his return to the big leagues in July 2007, the young left-hander vowed that he would not take himself and his work so seriously as he had.
Even as a rookie in 2006, there were times when Lester seemed almost relentlessly self-critical. His demeanor was constantly stoic, almost never revealing any joy after pitching.
And so, Lester insisted, the experience with illness would change him. He would not wear his struggles so prominently, and he would be able to maintain perspective on outings when he had not lived up to his tremendous expectations.
All of that sounded good in theory. In practice …
“That worked for about three starts. It’s easy to say, hard to do, especially when you go out there and you suck. It’s hard to sit back and say, ‘At least I pitched.’ It’s easy to say that before it happens,” Lester said. “Yes, I appreciate every day that I have, being in the big leagues, being able to pitch.
“[But] I don’t really think that whole theory [of moving on from a bad game] kicked in until I had a family. Then it made sense. You can’t come home and be upset about my start when I need to take care of my son. You’ve got to move on.
“I’ve tried to do a better job of it this year. Sometimes I stink at it, and I’ll go home, my wife will tell me it’s time to get over it. There’s times when I’m good at it and you wouldn’t even know that I pitched that night. It just depends. But as far as pitching, wanting to do well, wanting to win and not wanting to lose, I don’t think that has changed.”
Tunnel vision and singularity of purpose allowed Lester to push forward in 2007. He was able to pitch in a dozen games, going 4-0, and at times there were hints of the gifts that had made him such a highly touted prospect. There was the unforgettable first night back on the mound on July 23 in Cleveland, when he claimed a win by allowing two runs in six innings.
There was a September performance in Baltimore when he breezed through seven shutout innings, his stuff starting to tick back up amidst a stretch that positioned him for a spot on the Sox’ postseason roster. There was a relief appearance back in Cleveland during the ALCS, when his stuff suddenly had a nasty streak that permitted him to log three dominating shutout innings of relief, albeit in a Game 4 loss.
And then, finally, there was the almost miraculous moment of Game 4 of the World Series, when Lester -- given a chance to start because injured teammate Tim Wakefield was unable to pitch -- earned the win in the title-clinching game with 5 2/3 shutout innings.
It was an amazing, emotional and inspiring story, and yet, Lester’s accomplishments that first year back from cancer were not yet representative of his true abilities.
“Looking back on it, I wasn’t right until probably the middle of ’08. [In] ’07, I thought I was fine physically, but I wasn’t even close,” Lester said. “As the year went on and ’08 came in, I felt like I was 100 times better than I was in October. But I really don’t think I hit a point where I was like, ‘OK, this is me,’ until June , a good ways into the season. That’s when I started to notice the difference, not only in my stuff, but recovering was a lot better than a year to six months prior.”
‘I’M PROUD OF WHAT I’VE COME FROM’
It is since that 2008 season that Lester has emerged as a striking image of strength and durability. From 2008 until he landed on the disabled list for a few weeks this season due to a lat strain, he had never missed a turn in the rotation, making over 100 consecutive starts. In the process, the left-hander had become robust in both stature and results, having forged a glimmering 64-29 record with a 3.25 ERA since the start of ’08.
He has been so good that his performance is no longer evaluated in the context of his status as a cancer survivor. He is simply viewed as one of the best pitchers in the game.
Yet while Lester once strived for such an outcome, to be defined by his profession and not an illness that has now been in remission for almost five full years, that is no longer the case. He welcomes the idea that he is a thriving cancer survivor.
His thinking was changed on the subject in part when his father, John Lester, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2008.
“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,” Lester said. “When it’s your dad, it puts things in perspective. It helped me mature faster, going through what my dad went through.”
The experience of being able to provide strength to his father -- with relatively little effort, no less -- helped to change the pitcher’s perspective on accepting the fact that his identity had been redefined.
Lester is now five years removed from being diagnosed as a cancer patient. And with that distance, he is described less often as a cancer survivor than as simply being one of the best pitchers in the game.
That was a description for which Lester once strived. Yet now, while appreciative to be known for his work on the mound, he also embraces the fact of what he’s experienced, and what he can represent to others.
“It took me a while. I’ll be the first one to admit it. I was immature,” Lester said. “Me coming into spring training [in 2007] and saying I wanted to be treated as a baseball player and not a cancer survivor, I can only imagine hearing that now from myself. It was selfish. I didn’t know how to handle it.
“It took me a good two years to figure that out, to know that if somebody has cancer or had cancer or a family member had cancer, they just want to come up to you, shake your hand and say, ‘Thank you.’ They want to talk to you about it. If it helps them, how easy is that?”
And so, Lester has learned. He knows how powerful it can be simply to listen to the story of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, or to provide an audience for a family member of someone with the disease.
He understands that something as simple as a description of the treatment process for him -- ‘This is what I had, this is what I went through and it stunk’ -- can connect him to strangers who are looking for a source of strength. And Lester has learned not just to be comfortable with such exchanges but to gain tremendous satisfaction from them.
It is in some ways ironic, then, that he has gained that maturity at a time when he is no longer viewed primarily as a cancer survivor. He is a robust, dominating pitcher, the picture of physical strength on the mound.
Descriptions of the 27-year-old start with his body of work -- the pitcher of record in a World Series-clinching game, status as a two-time All-Star who numbers as one of the top pitchers in the game.
But whereas Lester once strived to make people think of him as a pitcher and not a patient/survivor, he no longer wants his experience to be hidden as a footnote.
“Back four years ago, I would have been like, ‘That’s awesome. That’s great.’ That’s what I wanted to be known as,” Lester said. “Now, it’s to the point where it doesn’t get mentioned a lot anymore. It’s not fresh on people’s minds. [But] for me, I like it now -- I like to be known as that. 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.”
There was a time when the regular check-ups provoked anxiety, when there was a hint of dread in the process and in the wait for the results. In 2007, the first year after he had been declared cancer-free, he had to undergo scans at regular two-month intervals. As he prepared for those examinations, the ability to access those sharp details of his experience could prove daunting.
“Those are the times where all the stuff would come back up,” he said.
But now, there is no longer fear of the process of being examined. Lester is at a point where the exam itself is routine.
“It’s like second nature. I know what I need to do,” Lester said of the scans he has undergone annually for the last three years. “I know what time I need to be there. I know what the dye is going to feel like. I know what the drink is going to taste like. I know the whole deal.”
That view is aided by the fact that, when he is examined in Boston, he is able to receive the results of his check-up in a matter of minutes. There is no time for uncertainty to enter the equation between the exam and a clean bill of health.
Lester recognizes how fortunate it is to receive such instant diagnoses.
“It’s nice having those resources here,” Lester noted. “The past two years, I’ve done it in Fort Myers. The anxiety of the drive back to the condo is more than I can handle sometimes. Usually, when I have them here in Boston, you go upstairs, see the doctor, he tells you and you go on with the day.”
This coming November will mark five years from the time when Lester was initially declared cancer-free. It is at the five-year marker that those who have been struck by cancer are often referred to as having gone from in remission to “cured” of the cancer.
“We’ve got a little ways to go,” Lester said, “but it’s a big milestone.”
It will be one of many that he has achieved in the span of these past five years, a stretch upon which, at age 27, Lester can reflect with enormous appreciation.
“The cancer thing was done and over, and now I met my future wife and got married the next year, winning the World Series, getting an extension here, having a son -- the whole deal, it was a fast couple years,” Lester said. “I had a lot of good things happen in a short amount of time.”
It is a powerful story that continues to add new chapters, a fact that Lester is now willing and able to enjoy not just for himself, but also for those who can draw strength from his experience.