When Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester took the mound for Monday night's game against the Kansas City Royals, 12-year-old Wil Vaillancourt of Marblehead, Mass., at first, could not be bothered to watch. Engrossed in his computer game, Vaillancourt only glanced at the television periodically to see the score.
But midway through the televised game, when Lester appeared poised to pitch a no-hitter, Wil's father, Quin, mentioned nonchalantly, "You know, Jon Lester is a cancer survivor."
Wil was enraptured. But his reasons for pulling for Lester may have been even more personal than those of the thousands of fans that crowded Fenway Park that night.
Wil has leukemia. For him, watching Lester pitch his way into the history books was particularly inspiring.
"I was surprised that [Lester] did have cancer, seeing how good he was pitching," Wil said. "I was surprised how he could be doing that."
The 24-year-old Lester, who sat out the end of the 2006 season and returned to the team last year after completing treatment, held the Royals to no hits in a 7-0 win.
The next morning, Wil showed up at his chemotherapy appointment sporting a bold Red Sox T-shirt. He hopes to bounce back just like Lester has, and to one day become a pilot.
"I think that from Wil's perspective, watching Jon Lester bounce back from his cancer the way he has and do so well in this game, he definitely hopes he can do that well as well," Quin Vaillancourt said of his son. "I would say it's definitely given him a lot of inspiration.
"And I also have a feeling that as a 12-year-old, he doesn't expect anything less than coming back, you know?"
For lymphoma survivor Lester, the evening was the latest achievement in a career once threatened by cancer. Last year, the lefty hurler pitched a clinching victory for the Sox in game four of the World Series. Monday night's feat represented the first no-hitter for Boston since then-rookie Clay Buchholz threw one in September.
Perhaps more significantly, Lester's no-hitter comes after he was forced to miss the end of the 2006 season, diagnosed with a rare but treatable form of non-Hodgkin's called anaplastic large cell lymphoma, on Aug. 31, 2006. But by December of that year, it was reported that Lester's latest CT scan showed no signs of the disease, which appeared to be in remission.
It is this more personal feat that turned out to be the most impressive in the opinion of another fan named Matthew Lowney.
Lowney, a 28-year-old living in Portland, Ore., stumbled upon the news of Lester's incredible no-hitter game Tuesday morning on ESPN.com. He was so taken by the news that he e-mailed the story to his former doctor.
Lowney was diagnosed in December 2004 with the same form of lymphoma that Lester had. Much like Lester, Lowney underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment for his lymphoma at the young age of 24.
At the onset of his diagnosis, Lowney felt lost and alone.
"You always hear about the elderly being diagnosed with cancer, and you always hear the news story about tragic childhood cancers. But I didn't know of any people my age with lymphoma that I could turn to for support," Lowney said.
Like Lester, Lowney's cancer is now in remission.
And now he has plunged into life full force, thriving as a volunteer for Cancer Care Resources, a Portland nonprofit organization focused on providing support services for people living with cancer. He also devotes his time to the Web site I'm Too Young for This, which he said is designed as "a global support community for young adults affected by cancer who get busy living and rock on."
Getting Back in the Game
"I hope Jon Lester is ecstatic with his successes, not just in baseball but in overcoming cancer," Lowney said. "And I hope he knows that it provides inspiration to me and so many others."
"It taught me that my cancer diagnosis was not the end of the world when I can look up to someone who beat the impossible once by overcoming lymphoma, and then beat the impossible again by pitching this no-hitter."
Cancer experts agreed that Lester is a tremendous inspiration -- both as an athlete and a survivor.
"The message [Lester's story provides] is that many forms of cancer can be cured by drugs, and that afterward people can live normal lives," said Dr. Bruce Chabner, clinical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.
Lowney said the latest chapter of Lester's story is particularly inspiring.
"When I saw it I thought to myself, 'I can treat [having cancer] as a learning experience and use my strength to get through this and return to my old life and maybe even help win a World Series," Lowney said. "I can do something just as impossible as beating cancer."