HE WAS 22 years old, had a 7-2 record in the major leagues and was one of the toasts of Fenway when he got the news. Last summer Jon Lester, the Red Sox' easygoing rookie lefthander, was found to have anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, a rare but often treatable blood cancer. His season ended on Aug. 23, the team announced his condition on Sept. 1, and then Lester began his battle: six rounds of chemo. A loss of 20 pounds and all his straight brown hair. Then the slow recovery and three months in the minors. Last week Lester returned to the Show. His first two outings? A win, a no decision and a career back in gear. Life, he says, is good.
On whether he'll be a role model for others with cancer
I can't put that title on myself, but I hope I can help somebody out. I just want to get attention for the way I play baseball. I want to go back to being normal.
Every 21 days I'd go in for treatment. Because of my age and the shape I was in, my body really didn't handle it badly. For a couple of days I'd feel worn down and I'd sleep. Then I'd get up and go fishing, go to the mall. I'm not going to sit home and feel sorry for myself. There's nothing better than to keep fighting.
On recovering at his childhood home in Puyallup, Wash. (pop. 36,605)
I got slapped I don't know how many times by my mom for joking around. Stupid things. If I was trying to get some little thing that they—[his mother, Kathie, and father, John]—wouldn't let me get, I'd go, "Well, I've got cancer. You better get it for me." Stuff like that would lighten the mood, let them know I was doing O.K.
On learning last Dec. 1 that his cancer was in remission
It was more exciting for my parents that day than anybody. They were high-fiving and hugging doctors. For me, it was exciting, but I still had two more treatments. [He now gets check-ups every three months.] I spent that day getting drugs pumped in me. I really didn't get to celebrate much.
On his favorite places to fish
Any place that has fish. I love going for salmon back home. And spring training fishing is awesome, catching bass [in Florida]. You spend so much time at the field and work so hard that the days become monotonous. [To escape] you can stand on the bank, flip a worm into the water, have a beer, enjoy the sun and relax.
On whether he enjoyed his hot start in the majors last year
No, that was the problem. I took every start so seriously—like it was the World Series. I'd throw six innings and get the win, but I'd look at the three or four walks I had, or a hit batter. This year I'm enjoying it. I spent time at [Class A] Greenville, and that was more fun than I've ever had playing baseball, just that I got to pitch again.
On his first pitch this year, a fastball strike to the Indians' Grady Sizemore
I hadn't talked about it with [catcher Jason] Varitek, but I'd thought about my first pitch for a couple of days. I was out there calming myself down, and I had a feeling he would call a fastball. I'm just glad I didn't have to throw with a 1-0 count on Sizemore.
On how his pitching now compares with a year ago
I feel more comfortable. Mechanics-wise last year, every start I was trying to fine-tune something or fix something or work on a pitch. Now it's just pitching.
On what he anticipates from his first start at Fenway later this month
A warm reception. I hope I can go in there, throw strike one and not think about it.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL HEAPE
MARK DUNCAN/AP (LESTER PLAYING)