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Boston Red Sox
Cancer battles unite franchise

By Tom Singer /

They battle each other on diamonds for their own glory, yet together they carry on a conspicuous fight for the common good.

When it comes to cancer, the members of every postseason team can tell both inspirational and tragic stories, and the Boston Red Sox are no different. So while they play for Red Sox Nation, they also champion a hopeful world.

The two missions can collide dramatically. In Game 1 of the Red Sox's American League Division Series against the Angels, as Jon Lester walked off the Angel Stadium mound at the end of another sharp inning, the right-center-field video board urged fans to Stand Up To Cancer.

The irony of the moment wasn't lost on people acutely aware that Lester had already done just that, quite literally.

That hopeful world is populated by victims who hail Lester as a beacon of hope, who find encouragement in Mike Lowell's resolve, who applaud Shonda Schilling's crusade.

These three embrace these roles, unwanted as they were, because they're aware of their ability to make an impact.

Lester -- the young left-handed pitcher who was blindsided by a diagnosis of anaplastic large cell lymphoma on Aug. 31, 2006, and was declared cancer free after three months of treatments -- learned it quickly.

"Even though it's been a bad experience," Lester said on the way back, "it's been a good experience because you see a lot of good things come out of people."

That is why the postseason matters, way beyond the hits and errors and whatever provincial egos may be fed.

A trophy and gaudy rings await the ultimate winner of the games. There is no way to measure the rewards of advancing the common cause.

All who play and all who watch them share in the fight against cancer and other diseases that affect everyone. Those in uniform are symbols on a stage on which we are all players, and this is why, when the rally shouts fade and the rally towels stop waving, they all merit fans' cheers.

The one-to-one connection, whether from the most faraway bleacher seat or only across airwaves, can be extraordinary. Internet chat rooms and blogs positively brim with paeans to Lester following every milestone step: a World Series Game 7 win here, a no-hitter there.

"Sports figures with cancer have become almost evangelical in a way," said Dr. Gary Schnur, director of medical oncology at the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center. "I think ordinary people worry about themselves getting through it, and are at times intimidated by stories of athletes because it makes them feel like they can't measure up.

"That Lester has had such great success in baseball following his treatment in part is just a simple reflection of his underlying, innate talent. Some people's stories play out on the field [and in the public eye], and many don't. Either way, there is an insight gained from the experience."

"It's a tough disease, and some forms of it are worse than others," acknowledged Lester. "Looking to the future, hopefully cancer can become obsolete, to the point that it's like getting a cold."

These October acts advance the mission. Countless watched Lester dominate his Division Series starts through tears -- not tears of joy or of grief, depending on rooting interests, but tears of hope for themselves or for stricken loved ones.

Baseball has always been the "people's game," never more remarkably than when it comes to sharing in human conditions, of which cancer is a leading element. The connections between the disease and baseball's personnel are truly stunning, and they explain why many in the game are eager to rush the front lines in the fight against cancer.

MLB, which has always pushed for awareness campaigns to fight breast cancer, prostate cancer and skin cancer, led off the first donor Stand Up To Cancer program earlier this year with an initial contribution of $10 million.

"It's a wonderful program, and we have an opportunity to capitalize on all the attention the postseason receives," said Boston general manager Theo Epstein. "It puts the focus on an area where a lot of work remains to be done."

The Red Sox have done their share to hone that focus. Lester may be the lead character -- a youngster afflicted at the gateway of his promising career who overcame the roadblock to realize that promise -- but he isn't alone.

Anthony Rizzo is more anonymous, but no less admirable. Boston's 20th-round pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft was diagnosed in May with a form of lymphoma, a cruel deal for an 18-year-old. A summer of treatments, not baseball, ensued.

Last week, Rizzo returned to ball, in the Instructional League. Second at-bat, double.

"As an organization," Epstein said, "we're grateful to have had two tremendously uplifting stories, in Lester and Rizzo."

To make it three, go back a few years, to Lowell's pre-1999 Spring Training diagnosis of testicular cancer. He was with the Florida Marlins then but was, and is, in the family of man.

"I think the core of who you are stays what it is," Lowell recalled, "but I think it put baseball in a certain perspective for me of where it really is important ... it made me appreciate things a little bit more."

Last spring, two years ago, last decade ... in the months and years ahead. It is whenever, and wherever; on the field, in the front office.

Boston club president and CEO Larry Lucchino is a two-time survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, having been first diagnosed in 1985 with something "I didn't even know if I could spell it."

Shonda Schilling, Curt's wife, came out of a 2001 battle with skin cancer armed with her own SHADE Foundation in the fight against the disease.

"The one thing I learned, whether you're stage one or stage four, it consumes your life," she shared with a couple of years ago. "Your life comes to a screeching halt and it goes on without you and it's going to continue to go on without you, and that's a really hard thing to swallow, that you may leave this earth."

It's one of the things that blurs the line between idol and rooter, between player and fan. In this fight, we're all on the same side. We all persevere to cheers.

"All patients battling cancer are heroic in my eyes," said Dr. Schnur.

Tom Singer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.