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Massachusetts cancer survivor hits high note at Fenway Park

PEABODY, Mass. (AP) — When John Lema sang the National Anthem before the Red Sox game on April 27, he did it not just as a lifelong Sox fan, but also as a brain cancer survivor.

Lema, 48, is now cancer-free. But it’s been a journey to get there, after he underwent surgery to remove a clementine-sized tumor and a year of chemotherapy that followed.

For someone who attended his first Red Sox game at age 9, the experience was a thrill, and Lema said he has nothing but gratitude for his friend, Erin Gaudet, who nominated him to perform.

“It’s just been an incredible experience all the way through,” he said. “The first words that come to mind are gratitude, blessing and honor.”

A singer from an early age, Lema sings in his church choir and had voice training while studying at Boston College.

Going to a baseball game is different for Lema than for many other fans— he was born legally blind. His vision is limited, he said, and he can see games better if he watches them on television.

But nothing compares to being in the park, he said, just because it “is an experience in and of itself.”

Though he loves the game, he’s never been able to play due to his vision problem, Lema said. Singing at Fenway made him feel like he was part of the game though.

“You just feel like you hit a home run,” he said, “for someone who’s always loved baseball but could never play.”

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Finishing the anthem meant cheers from not only the fans— this may have been because the game was about to start, Lema acknowledged with a laugh —but he could hear players cheering from the dugout as well.

Lema, too, has a lot to cheer about.

It was November 2012 when he had a seizure and collapsed at the Cummings Center in Beverly, where he works as a senior recruiter for Oxford Global Resources. He was taken to Beverly Hospital, and then transferred to Lahey Hospital in Burlington.

Doctors there found the tumor and said it had probably been there for a while. Luckily, it was operable and a surgeon was able to remove it. A year of chemotherapy, in pill form, followed to combat any remaining cancer cells that could have been left behind, explained Lema.

He now goes for MRIs every six months and has not had any signs of cancer since. His parents and friends have helped him through the difficult times, he said; some friends send him a text message each time he goes for an MRI.

Gina Kolak, Lema’s nurse practitioner at Lahey who has worked with brain tumor patients since 1999, said Lema’s tumor started in the brain, and came from cells there.

“Brain tumors don’t really spread to other parts of the body,” she said.

His tumor was a grade two or three, four being the most severe, so he has a more positive prognosis, Kolak said. Lema will need to have MRIs throughout his life to make sure there is no recurrence, but these will get further and further apart as time goes without any problems.

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Lema’s “outstanding outlook” distinguished his case, Kolak said.

“John has really been a standout patient,” she said. “He’s always upbeat.”

She knows how big a sports fan he is— he wears a different team hat to his appointments, depending on the season, and talks sports while he’s there.

Lema said he hopes his story will inspire those going through significant health issues to get through their treatments.

“Just don’t give up,” he said.

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Information from: The Salem (Mass.) News, http://www.salemnews.com