Author’s note: Twenty-nine-year-old Jon Lester from Washington State was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2002 at only age 18, spent four years in the minor leagues and then went to the big leagues in 2006. Lester is currently one of the best left-handed pitchers in the sport of baseball, is starting for the Boston Red Sox and has the best record in baseball for 2013. Lester also is a hunter, a cancer survivor, and a family man.
When I look at great baseball players, I look at the length of time they played the game, how consistent they were, and the fact that they tried to do the best they could every day they played. Although I helped win the World Series for the Boston Red Sox and pitched a perfect game, what I’m most proud of is being consistent in my career in the number of starts that I’ve made, the number of innings I’ve pitched, and the number of wins I’ve helped my team achieve. In 2010, I won 19 games.
For a brief time, I thought my dream might be over. In 2006, I was driving from the ball park, and someone ran into the rear of my car. I didn’t think the accident was that bad, so I went on to the ball park knowing I had to pitch that night. I pitched that night, went home, and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I hardly could get out of the bed because my back was hurting so bad. I’d been playing a lot and was worn down, but I got up and starting moving. We flew to Los Angeles, and I pitched a game. After the game, I was still in pain and could hardly sleep. The next night we flew to Seattle to play. When my parents came to the airport to pick me up, I told them about the pain. I didn’t want to tell anyone else, because I didn’t want to be put on the disabled list. My uncle was a doctor there, and so he gave me something to help deal with the pain. Two or three hours later my dad and I went to the emergency room. After being admitted to the ER and examined by the doctor, the doctor asked, “Have you had any other problems other than your back?”
“No,” I replied. The doctor looked at me. Then, he looked at my dad, then back at me and announced, “Well, you either have lymphoma or testicular cancer.” I was 22 years old. I had my life and my career in front of me, and I thought I’d just been given a death sentence. My dad called my mom, and she came to the hospital. My uncle came to the ER and scolded the emergency room doctor. He told him he shouldn’t have told me I had cancer without more documentation. We went back to my parents’ house and I called my manager to fill him in on what was happening.
I stayed at home for two days and then we went to the airport. The owner of the Red Sox, John Henry, had made arrangements for my dad, my mom, my uncle, and me to fly back to Boston in his private airplane. Mr. Henry said, “Y’all get back to Boston as fast as you can and find the best doctor you can.”
When we got to Boston, we went to see a doctor who performed a bunch of tests. I continued to get worse; I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t eat. Finally I spent two days in the hospital with a morphine drip just to ease the pain. While I was in the hospital, all types of tests were run on me to try and determine what was wrong. The doctors suspected lymphoma, but lymphoma would have attacked the white blood cells and my white cell count was fairly normal. Finally, they discovered that a lymph node pushing up against a disk in my spinal column was causing the pain. After doing the biopsy on that lymph node, the oncologist came into my room but said, “I’ll come back when your parents are here, and we can talk.”
I looked the doctor in the eyes and said, “I’m not stupid. We both know what this is, and I want you to tell me.” So he sat down and we began to talk. “You have non-Hodgkin’s anaplastic large-cell lymphoma,” he said.
Now, if somebody held a gun to your head and said, “What type of cancer do you want us to put into your body?” that type of cancer is the one you should pick because, at that time, there was an 85 percent cure rate. Once I knew what was going on, I wasn’t so worried. I just wanted to know the plan of attack to defeat this cancer.
My family and I went home and spent a week together. Then I began chemotherapy. We discovered a little trick that really helped me combat the many side effects that most people experience during chemotherapy. The doctor gave me a full bag of fluids, which took about two hours. Then, I’d have the chemotherapy for about three hours. The first round of treatments I did in Boston. The President of the Boston Red Sox, John Henry, flew my family and me back to our home in Washington State for the rest of my treatments. I lost my hair, I really felt weak and run down, and I lost weight. The biggest thing that helped me through this whole process was I trying to live my life as normally as possible. I’d go fishing with my dad and my uncle, I’d go hunting, or I’d just walk around the mall. I didn’t want to sit around the house all day. Sometimes I’d get in my car, turn the radio on and just drive. I always tried to leave the house when I began thinking, “Why me?” “Will I ever get well?” “Will I ever play baseball again?” “Is this chemotherapy working?” “Am I going to get better?”
All this happened in the off-season of 2006, so, I didn’t miss any time playing baseball. The days I felt good, I’d work out in the gym. The days I didn’t feel good, I’d still throw the baseball. I tried to do all the things I normally would do to get in shape for spring training. I had my last chemo treatment the last week in January and was declared cancer-free soon after that.
On February 1, 2007, I went to Fort Myers, Florida ready for spring training. When I was signed in 2002, I was 6’4”and weighed 220 pounds. After going through chemo, I was 185 pounds. When I was at spring training I gained back to 200 pounds. During spring training, I did my normal routine – strength trained, pitched, and played. The Boston Red Sox called my next assignment my “Big League Rehab Assignment.” I had a choice of either staying in Florida or going to Greenville, South Carolina, where the Red Sox had a Class A baseball team. I made five starts as a pitcher on that team. I was sent to our Triple-A team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island next, and that is where I hurt my elbow. I spent all of June and half of July in Pawtucket, pitching every 5 days. Then, I was called back up to the Major Leagues. From July of 2007 until now, that is where I’ve played.
The Never Quit Foundation
A couple years ago, my wife, Farrah, and I started a foundation called Never Quit to support pediatric cancer research. Because of having had cancer myself, Farrah and I wanted to be involved in helping find a cure for adult and pediatric cancer. After the birth of our first son, we created the Never Quit Foundation for pediatric cancer. You can learn more at www.nvrqt.org.
I love being around kids. We call the local pediatric research center or the Children’s Hospital that deals with pediatric cancer patients in every town we travel to with the Boston Red Sox. We invite some of the children with pediatric cancer and their families out to the ball park to watch the baseball games. We try to introduce the children to members of the Boston Red Sox team, and the team we’re playing will send some of their players over to meet the children too. We get tickets for the kids and their families to the game and try to do what I did when I learned I had cancer – live a normal life in spite of the cancer. We feel at the foundation that, if we can get the children and their families to the baseball game, have them eat some hotdogs, laugh and meet baseball players like David Ortiz and some of the other big league baseball players, we’ve done a good thing, and helped bring some normalcy to the families and especially to the children. We also have an annual event in Boston every year to raise money for pediatric cancer research and to make more people aware of this disease and the battle these children have to fight. For more information, please visit www.facebook.com/NVRQT.
For more information on Jon Lester, visit http://boston.redsox.mlb.com/team/player.jsp?player_id=452657.
Image courtesy John E. Philips