The Red Sox announced yesterday that Jon Lester, 22, had been diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer, and will begin treatment in the coming week.
Sox manager Terry Francona, who said he visited Lester at Massachusetts General Hospital Thursday, informed the team of Lester’s condition about an hour before last night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“We met as a team before the game just to make sure everyone understood what was going on,” said Francona. “Other than that, it’s such a private matter and the Lesters have asked us to try to keep it that way. Obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”
Lester has been diagnosed with what the family called a treatable form of anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a rare cancer accounting for 1 percent to 2 percent of all lymphomas, or cancers of the lymph nodes, which are part of the disease-fighting network spread throughout the body. The cause is unknown.
The cancer can be fast-growing, but it’s often curable, said Dr. Robert Soiffer, chief of the division of blood cancers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “It’s responsive to chemotherapy and it is hopefully curable with chemotherapy,” he said.
Lester’s family did not indicate the stage of his cancer, including how many lymph nodes show signs of disease, which would influence his chances of recovery. “Being young is in his favor,” Soiffer said.
Soiffer said patients usually take a combination of chemotherapy drugs every few weeks for four to six months. It’s unlikely Lester could work out during this period, as chemotherapy can have severe side effects, including nausea. “When you’re an elite athlete, any treatment on your body is going to take its toll,” Soiffer said. “I certainly hope when he completed chemotherapy he would be able to return to a normal lifestyle, including pitching.”
Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell was diagnosed seven years ago with testicular cancer during a routine physical in spring training while with the Florida Marlins. He did not undergo a regimen of chemotherapy -- he underwent radiation treatment instead -- and was able to resume playing a little more than three months later. While his cancer cannot be compared with Lester’s, Lowell said, he has some sense of what lies ahead for his teammate.
“I think it’s a time where he’s going to want to be with his family and not have too many distractions,” Lowell said.
“The best thing is the doctor’s diagnosis, that it’s something treatable and curable. Take it for what it’s worth, get well, and worry about baseball later.
“For me, I didn’t have time to soak it in. It all happened in like two days. You’re scared. It’s a normal feeling, but I think the fact that it’s something he can recover from fully is very positive.”
Lester originally had complained of back pain, which team officials and his agent said was attributable to a car accident in which Lester said he was rear-ended on his way to Fenway Park to pitch against the Yankees Aug. 18. But in an interview with the Globe Aug. 24, the day after he made what would be his last start this season, in Anaheim, Calif., Lester said he’d been experiencing discomfort in his back even before the accident.
“It’s been that way a little bit before this,” Lester said at the time, “but it stiffened up the past week. Last night, it was just hard to get my back loose. My arm felt fine, but it was hard to get full torque.”
Lester, according to teammate Mike Timlin, went to see his doctor in Seattle last weekend. “All I know is he said he wasn’t feeling well,” Timlin said. Lester was to have started last Monday in Oakland, Calif., but instead was sent back to Boston by private jet to undergo testing to determine the source of his back pain. Thursday, the Red Sox released a statement that said Lester had been diagnosed with enlarged lymph nodes and had been admitted to Mass. General. Enlarged lymph nodes can be a primary indicator of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Everybody was pretty astonished,” Timlin said. “He’s a young kid. This is a serious roadblock for him, but we’re pulling for him.
“I’ve been praying for Lester for a while. I told him I would, right to his face. When you do that, you’ve got to be true.”
Asked if the car accident might in one way have been a fortuitous occurrence for Lester, Francona said: “I asked the doctor that yesterday. He said they would have found it soon anyway.”
No information was released on whether Lester intends to pursue treatment here or in his native Washington state .
The most recent case of a major league player with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was Andres Galarraga, who was playing for the Atlanta Braves in 1999 and, like Lester, went to doctors to determine the source of persistent back pain. Just as in Lester’s case, enlarged lymph nodes were found and he was diagnosed with the cancer. Galarraga underwent five months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation, and recovered sufficiently to resume playing a year later, at age 38. On Opening Day 2000, Galarraga hit a home run.
Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino also is a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1985. Lucchino had a bone marrow transplant, which at the time was an experimental form of treatment. In 2001, Lucchino, who later was diagnosed with prostate cancer, spoke before a Senate subcommittee holding a special hearing on lymphoma and other cancers.
Lester, who was rated the top prospect in the Red Sox organization by the trade publication Baseball America, began the season in Pawtucket, R.I., for the team’s Triple A minor league franchise, before making his major league debut June 10. He became the first lefthanded rookie in Sox history to win his first five decisions, including a 1-0 win over the Kansas City Royals July 18 in which he pitched eight innings of a combined one-hitter with Jonathan Papelbon.
But after going 5-0 with a 2.38 earned run average in his first eight starts, Lester struggled thereafter, going 2-2 with a 7.75 ERA in his last seven. In his last start, against Anaheim, Lester’s discomfort on the mound was much commented upon by Red Sox broadcasters Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy, as Lester took an inordinate amount of time between pitches. But staked to a 5-0 lead after two innings, Lester went five innings and was awarded the decision in a 5-4 Red Sox win.
Lester, who attended Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., was named the top high school player in the state in 2002, when he threw a no-hitter and struck out 18 of the 21 batters he faced. The Red Sox selected him with their first pick in the 2002 amateur draft -- he was taken 57th overall, in the second round -- and signed him to a $1 million bonus.
Lester is single. Red Sox majority owner John W. Henry earlier this week flew his parents, John and Kathie, from Seattle to Boston on his private jet.