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Lester: From patient to eager

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Maybe it's just part of the code of the so-called man-cave, which, after all, is what a baseball clubhouse really is. Or maybe it's because they're in a business where tough breaks come with the territory; the guy sitting beside you one day is gone the next, and you can't afford to get too close.

So you don't pry too much. Not about somebody getting cut or traded, somebody blowing out a knee or an elbow, and definitely not about somebody getting cancer.

"It's more or less, 'How you doing?' I say, 'Good.' That's about it," Jon Lester said yesterday, describing the typical exchange he has had with teammates since his early arrival in Red Sox camp.

And sometimes, Lester will tell you, that's more than enough.

"I think I've more or less surprised people," he said. "They expect to see a cancer patient instead of me."

The hair hasn't grown back all the way yet -- he shaved his head, after getting sick of waking up to the clumps the chemo left on his pillow. He's still a couple of pounds shy of regaining all of the 25 he lost, and he'd like the legs to be a little stronger.

Get past that, though, and Lester doesn't look any different from the pitcher who was winning a bunch of games as a rookie last season until a doctor, trying to figure out why Lester's back was hurting, discovered that he had a rare form of blood cancer known as anaplastic large cell lymphoma.

"When I first saw Jon today, I almost didn't recognize him because I didn't expect him to look that good," said teammate Jonathan Papelbon, one of those who said he didn't call or write while Lester was undergoing treatment back home in Washington state because he didn't want to encroach on Lester's privacy. "Looked like the same ol' Jonny to me.

"I've said prayer after prayer for him this offseason, me and my wife. It's just awesome. Awesome, awesome, awesome to see him come back from that. The fight that he's gone through, you know, it's just amazing.

"For me, that's the kind of teammate I want, somebody that's never going to give up, somebody that's going to go out there and bust his butt to succeed and bust his butt to get where he wants and deserves. That was awesome, almost like a pick-me-up."

You know what the best part is, according to Lester?

"It's just nice being normal," he said, "and working out, getting back to that everyday routine."

Those who figured this experience might have turned Lester into a walking Hallmark card, spewing platitudes about finding new meaning in his life and such, are apt to be disappointed.

Lester isn't the type to lay his heart out there, whether it's about combining with Papelbon to throw a one-hitter (as he did against the Royals last July 18), or about a doctor telling him, on the day of his fifth of six chemotherapy treatments, that his CT scan was clear of cancer cells, and that he could proceed with plans to be in Florida by the first of February.

"I enjoyed life before," Lester shot back when someone fed him the standard do-you-enjoy-life-more-now line of questioning. "Maybe you sit back in retrospect and enjoy yourself a little more. I'm not as hard on myself as I was last year."

If Lester has a concern, it's that the Red Sox might go too easy on him this spring. In his mind, there's nothing, physically, to keep him from trying to reclaim the spot in the starting rotation he seized last June, when he won his first five decisions after being recalled from Pawtucket June 10. He was the first rookie lefthander ever to win his first five decisions for the Sox.

The parting words from his doctor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, when Lester talked about pitching this season?

" 'Go get 'em,' " Lester said. "Really, I think he was more excited than anything about what was going on. He said, 'Listen to your body and trust yourself that everything's all right. Be as normal as you can be. Go about your day and get stronger.' "

When the rest of the Sox pitchers throw their first bullpen Sunday, Lester is scheduled to do the same. He believes he will be ready for Opening Day.

Sox officials, including general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, have been preaching a cautious approach. Leaving him in extended spring training after the team breaks camp is a possibility.

"I think it's because they haven't seen me," Lester said. "I saw Tito today for the first time since I left Boston. I think once these guys show up and see the weight is back on, I'm in shape, I'm doing all my work, I'm running, I feel good, then I think everything will be back to normal.

"But until that happens, I think they're going to talk about being cautious. If they tell me, 'Hey, we need to back you off,' I've got to do that. I've got to listen to what they say."

In the euphoria of the December CT scan that showed no cancer cells, Lester pronounced himself "cancer-free" in a conference call with reporters. The people in the business of treating the disease typically don't use such words. Not this soon, anyway.

Lester, who turned 23 Jan. 7, will be monitored for the next five years. The first year, he will undergo a follow-up CT scan once every three months. The hope is that those tests will continue to decrease in number. If, at the end of five years, there has not been a recurrence, then he will hear from his doctors that he is cancer-free.

"Hopefully we'll reach that point in five years and I won't have to worry about it anymore," he said.

He doesn't think about it when he's out quail hunting with Chad Spann, his buddy from the minor leagues, as they were last month in Georgia.

And there are too many other things to think about on the mound.

But the doubts, they're tougher to keep away when he's alone.

"Laying in bed at night, when you're not doing anything, I think about it a little bit," he said when asked about the possibility of a recurrence. "I try not to. As long as I keep busy, I'm all right. Every once in a while I feel something and say, 'What's that?' "

But baseball is back in session, no one is sticking a needle in his arm, and Jon Lester is here to play. That's what it means to be normal. For him, that's more than enough.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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