Perhaps the most amazing thing about Jon Lester's victory in the World Series-clinching game less than a year after finishing cancer treatment is that his doctors weren't that surprised.
The cancer specialists in Boston and Seattle, who watched their patient on TV Sunday night, were thrilled to see how far the 23-year-old lefthander had come even from spring training, when his hair was still growing back after chemotherapy, but they always had high hopes that Lester would return to his demanding profession. Not only was Lester a young, elite athlete, they reasoned, he had a highly treatable type of blood cancer for which the main treatment has a 25-year track record of success.
"His outcome is what we would hope for and expect in most patients with his disease," said Dr. Oliver Press, an attending physician at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, who supervised Lester's treatment for anaplastic large-cell lymphoma last winter. Lester rebounded more quickly than most patients, he added, but recent advances in anti-nausea drugs and other medications that ease the side effects of chemotherapy have allowed many people in far worse physical condition to return quickly to their normal activities.
However, few people not named Lance Armstrong get the chance to show the world how completely they've fended off the nation's second-leading killer: Lester went from being a man so sick that even the Yankees sent him flowers after his diagnosis last summer to shutting out the Colorado Rockies for 5 2/3 innings, leading the Red Sox to their second world championship in four years. His story has been a shot in the arm for people suffering from cancer everywhere, especially those diagnosed with a blood cancer from the same group as Lester's, called non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which strikes 58,000 Americans each year.
"People say to me, 'I have the same cancer that Jon Lester had,' " said Dr. Robert Soiffer, chief of blood cancers at Dana-Farber, where Lester began his treatment before returning home to his native Puyallup, Wash., to continue chemo last fall. "I say, 'Can you pitch?' "
Lester never tried to call public attention to his fight against cancer after being diagnosed in August 2006, when he was in the middle of a storybook rookie season that included winning his first five decisions. The rookie initially thought his back pain was the result of a rear-end collision on Storrow Drive, but his uncle, a physician, told Lester the pain was a symptom of cancer, and the young man suddenly faced the fight of his life.
Doctors at Dana-Farber started Lester on a regimen of four chemotherapy drugs - known as CHOP after the first letter in each medicine's name - that has helped improve the five-year survival rate from Lester's form of lymphoma to nearly 70 percent. In the past, patients often experienced extreme nausea and vulnerability to infections as a result of CHOP, but drugs that control these side effects have made it easier for all patients to endure the highly toxic treatment without interruption or hospitalization.
But doctors at Dana-Farber and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance expected Lester to do better than most patients, both because he is generally so healthy and so mentally strong and because he had strong support from his family. He started treatment in September 2006 and, by early December, a CT scan showed that he was cancer-free. As a result, Press said he decided to give Lester only six rounds of chemotherapy rather than the eight that are sometimes required.
"He was a real trouper going through it all. He never complained about things," said Press. "He wanted to get this behind him and get back to baseball."
By the time Lester reported to spring training last February, he told teammates that his main concern was that manager Terry Francona would go too easy on him. After rehabilitation stints with two minor league teams, Lester returned to the Red Sox in July, winning four games against no defeats during the regular season. Sunday night's 4-3 win over Colorado was Lester's first postseason victory.
"People after CHOP are hopefully able to resume their life and do everything they were able to do prior," said Soiffer, who was not Lester's primary oncologist but has acted as Dana-Farber's spokesman on his care. "The wonderful thing about Jon Lester is that he's done that and more."
Scott Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org