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Lester has healthy shot at a return

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It was a simple game of catch. It was an affirmation of life, and healing.

When Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to spring training in February, a little over a month past his 23d birthday, Jon Lester expects to be among them. Chances are, he'll be an early arrival, but can you blame him for his eagerness?

There is one cycle of chemotherapy still ahead this month, but last Thursday, doctors took a look at his CT scan and told him there were no cancer cells visible.

"Obviously, there was a lot of joy, smiles, and phone calls made that day," Lester said yesterday.

Two days ago, just over three months after he announced that he'd been diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a blood cancer, Lester picked up his baseball mitt, hooked up with his buddy Mark Potoshnik, and played catch.

It's what pitchers do in December, when they begin to prepare for a new season. Lester will be no different, a joyous piece of news to his family, friends, teammates, employers, and Red Sox fans, including the hundreds who e-mailed or wrote the young lefthander letters of encouragement. Or the four young college women who started thelesterproject.com, and began selling bracelets of hope in support of the Jimmy Fund.

"I got mail, from little kids with lymphoma to 80-year-old people who survived cancer," Lester said in a conference call with reporters. "I got so much, it got to where I stopped reading it, because I didn't want people feeling sorry for me."

The worry lines can now give way to smiles, like the ones Lester says his parents, John and Kathie, haven't stopped flashing since they heard the news.

"We're over the moon about this," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said last night.

Lester said his teammates were so respectful of his privacy that they almost went "overboard" keeping their distance.

"I think they were afraid to call," he said. "I called guys and said, 'Hey, I want to be called, to get my mind off this thing.' "

Curt Schilling, his 40-year-old teammate, did not let the generation gap get in the way.

"I have kept in touch with Jon pretty closely, so I knew the situation," Schilling said in an e-mail last night. "Great news, of course. I am excited for him and his family, and our family has him in our prayers. I can't wait to see the kid back on the hill in Fenway."

A return to the mound, so uncertain in September, when he began the first 21-day cycle of chemotherapy at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston before returning home and continuing treatment at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, now seems probable.

Lester said he has been working out, lifting weights, while undergoing treatment. He has gone fishing and golfing, though he acknowledged that in the first few days after the powerful drugs were administered, he did not feel like himself.

Now, he says, he feels good, "with lots of energy."

On Dec. 21, he will go back to the Hutchinson center for his fifth round of chemotherapy. Barring any unforeseen developments, that will be the final one. There will be scans every six months, to make sure the cancer hasn't returned, but he is healthy again, and a baseball player.

"Obviously, it's very relieving to be here now that it's almost done," he said. "Everything's gone very well, I haven't had a lot of problems, even with switching hospitals, and the medication.

"I have a lot of energy. I'm happy, very pleased."

And ready to go to Florida in February.

"My expectation from the beginning was that I would be at spring training next season at some point," he said. "Everything is good, and ready to go. I'm looking to be there at the reporting date."

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