Pitcher Jon Lester and first baseman Anthony Rizzo share an unbreakable bond: Both were members of the 2016 Cubs team that won the World Series. This victory was about far more than a trophy. It was also about shattering a championship drought that plagued the Cubs for 108 years — the longest drought by any team in major American sports.
Lester and Rizzo both played key roles in that championship. But many fans don’t know that the bond between the two goes back much further to a time when Rizzo received a cancer diagnosis. Lester, who already successfully beat cancer, provided a model of strength and stability. Let’s look at each man’s cancer battle, as well as the bond they’ve had ever since.
Jon Lester’s battle with cancer
Lester was diagnosed with cancer back in 2006, during his rookie season with the Boston Red Sox. In August of that year, Lester sat out a game because of a sore back. The issue must have been bad enough to concern the team. Although they were on a road trip at the time, the Red Sox sent Lester back to Boston for further testing.
At first, doctors assumed that Lester’s ailment had stemmed from a car crash he’d been in earlier that month. Yet when they found that Lester had enlarged lymph nodes, they began testing for cancer. Soon they discovered Lester indeed had a type of cancer known as anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
Lester began undergoing chemotherapy in Seattle, not far from his childhood home in Tacoma, Washington. The treatments continued into the off-season, and by December he was already in remission. Just two months after completing his last treatment, Lester returned to major league action in a game on March 5, 2007.
Anthony Rizzo’s battle with cancer
Like Lester, Rizzo’s battle with cancer came at the beginning of his career, in 2008. Rizzo, however, hadn’t yet made the leap to the major leagues. Instead, he was still playing in the Red Sox farm league. Nonetheless, he was already making quite a name for himself, due to his impressive performance for the Class-A Greenville Drive.
Rizzo received his diagnosis of cancer after his ankles inexplicably began swelling up—so much so that, by his own account, Rizzo had put on around 15 pounds. Soon doctors had diagnosed him with limited state classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Just like that, the 18-year-old Rizzo found himself plunged into a world of fear and confusion.
Soon after his diagnosis, Rizzo and his father went for a meeting with the Red Sox organization, who promised to do everything they could for him. At that meeting, Rizzo was also introduced to Lester, who gave Rizzo and his father a tour of the various Red Sox facilities. In addition, Lester offered some hard-won words of advice about overcoming cancer.
Lester told Rizzo that he needed to think of the cancer in the same way as he would any other competition, focusing on what he needed to do to win, and not getting too bogged down in worry and uncertainty.
That advice was just what Rizzo needed to hear. “I was thinking the same thing,” he later recalled: “‘I have to do whatever it takes to get this out of me. He [Lester] beat his cancer; I knew I could too.”
Rizzo underwent six months of chemotherapy, and in September doctors declared that he was in remission. He, like Lester, had beaten his diagnosis.
Both Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester give back
Although both Lester and Rizzo were able to overcome their cancer in a relatively short time, neither has forgotten the experience. Moreover, both men have made it a priority to give back to the cancer community. Lester founded the NVRQT (i.e. “never quit”) campaign to raise funds for pediatric cancer research.
In 2012, Rizzo founded the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation. This non-profit organization raises money for cancer research, and for families who find themselves grappling with the disease. As recently as 2017, the foundation made a gift of $3.5 million to the Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.