Lymphoma looks treatable for Lester
A five-week run of increasingly bad fortune for the Red Sox officially turned frightening Friday, when rookie left-handed pitcher Jon Lester was diagnosed with a rare but treatable form of cancer called anaplastic large cell lymphoma. According to a press release issued by the Sox shortly after 6 p.m. and attributed to Lester’s family, he will begin undergoing treatment within the next week.
Anaplastic large cell lymphoma is a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. According to the website www.cancerbackup.org, it is a high-grade lymphoma, which means it grows faster and “…usually needs prompt treatment with chemotherapy.” It accounts for 1 in 50 cancer cases, is most common in children and young adults and affects twice as many males as females.
Dr. Robert Soiffer, who serves the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston as its chief of the division of hematologic malignancies, told the Associated Press Friday that Lester’s cancer is “…responsive to chemotherapy and very treatable” and added younger patients typically “…have a better prognosis than older ones.” Soiffer is not treating Lester.
Sox players, most of whom were aware Lester was undergoing a battery of serious medical tests, were informed of his illness in a team meeting prior to the game Friday against the Blue Jays.
“Before the game, we met to make sure everyone understood what’s going on,” Terry Francona told reporters after the Sox edged the Blue Jays, 2-1. “Other than that, it’s such a private matter, and the Lesters have asked us to try to keep it that way. Our prayers are with him and his family. I understand that there’s so much interest in everything that happens with the Red Sox. I think everybody can understand the need to keep some privacy and some respect.”
Concern has been growing over Lester, 22, for more than a week. He was nearly scratched from his start against the Angels Aug. 23 due to back pain but earned the win despite allowing three runs on six hits and four walks in five innings. His velocity was lower than usual and Lester told reporters afterward he had trouble loosening up.
At the time, it was believed Lester’s back pain was a result of a fender-bender he was involved in Aug. 18, when his car was rear-ended on Storrow Drive in Boston as he drove to Fenway Park for his start against the Yankees. But it became obvious something more serious was going on last weekend, when, according to mlb.com, Lester was not seen in the locker room during the Sox’ series against the Mariners in Seattle. The website also reported Lester, a native of suburban Seattle, went to a nearby hospital for a CT scan last weekend.
On Sunday, the Sox announced Lester would not make his next scheduled start against the Athletics Monday. He was placed on the disabled list Monday and traveled back to Boston, where he was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital for a battery of tests Wednesday.
That night, The Boston Herald reported on its website doctors found enlarged lymph nodes and were testing Lester for cancer. On Thursday, the Sox issued a statement confirming doctors had found enlarged lymph nodes. At Fenway Park, players such as Curt Schilling and Mike Timlin spoke worriedly of Lester’s condition while Lester’s father declined an interview request from The Boston Globe, telling a reporter “…we’re right in the middle of a whole bunch of things right here.”
Lester, whom the Sox selected out of high school in the second round of the 2002 draft, is 7-2 with a 4.76 ERA in 15 starts. He has been one of the organization’s top prospects for years and has been lauded by managers, teammates and executives for not only his talent but also his makeup.
“You’re watching Jon start to start and here’s a kid who’s a grade-A competitor,” Schilling said Aug. 16. “He’s got A-plus stuff. He is, in every sense of the word to me, an ace in the making.”
“I was with the Padres when the Red Sox drafted Jon Lester and I remember the stories about [him]—‘this is a great makeup kid,’” Sox director of amateur scouting Jason McLeod said in July. “And he is. He’s probably one of the best in our whole system.
“Every step, it was just ‘this kid’s makeup is unreal.’
Lester opened the season at Triple-A Pawtucket and made his big league debut June 10. He went 5-0 with a 2.38 ERA in his first eight starts, a stretch he capped July 19 when he allowed just one hit over eight innings in beating the Royals, 1-0, at Fenway Park. But Lester struggled in his subsequent seven starts, during which he went 2-2 with a 7.75 ERA and averaged just 5.14 innings per start.
Lester’s illness is the latest and most serious ailment to befall the Sox. Four players—Lester, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek and Alex Gonzalez—have been placed on the disabled list since July 31 and every regular player missed at least one game in August due to injury or illness. The Sox played the entire three-game series against the Athletics this week without David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez or Wily Mo Pena and with only two players available off the bench. The Sox fell out of playoff contention by going 9-21 in August, which is the worst August performance ever by a team that began the month leading its division or league.
Ortiz, who leads the AL in home runs and RBI and was a leading candidate for the MVP award prior to the Sox’ struggles, was hospitalized briefly two weeks ago due to an irregular heartbeat. The symptoms returned Monday, when Ortiz was pulled from the lineup against the Athletics, and he returned to Boston and spent two days undergoing tests at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Ortiz was released Thursday and the club issued a press release Friday stating the tests came back normal, but Ortiz will miss the rest of the series against the Blue Jays and will meet with doctors Monday to determine when or if he will return this season.
On Friday, closer Jonathan Papelbon—the favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year award—bent down in pain after throwing his 11th pitch of the ninth inning and left the game due to a strained right shoulder. And after the game, Francona announced Schilling will miss his next start Monday due to a strained latimus muscle in his right side.
Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at email@example.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-979-0979.