Not Lucky to Get Lymphoma, but Lucky to Get It When He Did
It was 1995, and by his own admission, Larry Lucchino, currently president and CEO Emeritus of the Boston Red Sox, was “cocky, full of myself.” At age 40, he had a big job - vice president and general counsel of the Baltimore Orioles – and was feeling healthy and strong at the end of a motorcycle trip in the south of France. Only, there was this persistent cough.
The cough turned out to be a symptom of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Specifically, it was B-cell lymphoma, which starts in the B lymphocytes. “I was diagnosed on Friday the 13th. For a superstitious baseball executive, you can imagine,” he said.
“I was scared and angry. I took it as a slap in the face, an insult.”
But once it sunk in, he realized he was lucky.
Larry Lucchino reflects on cancer journey
“We are living through watershed moment in cancer therapy. A diagnosis of cancer used to be considered a death sentence, now it’s a survivable disease,” said the Hall of Famer who is now chairman and principal owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Red Sox’s top minor league affiliate.
He was the keynote speaker at a conference, Survivorship 101, held at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., where he said he could be “exhibit A” in a demonstration of the advances made in cancer treatment.
He was treated at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, my home away from home. Chemotherapy did not keep him in remission, and he learned that it would take “a small miracle” to save his life. The miracle was an autologous bone marrow transplant, “a new modality” at the time.
“More than 12,000 days later, I’m still here,” he said. (That’s about 33 years!)
Doing great things after cancer
Dr. Jay Burton, an internist, survivor of acute myeloid leukemia and organizer of the conference through his support network, Survivor Journeys, said, “People can have cancer and go on to do great things. Larry is following that path.”
For Red Sox fans, the high point on that path had to be when he was president and CEO of Boston’s previously beleaguered team as they broke their 86-year “Curse of the Bambino” and won the 2004 World Series. Their trajectory had a parallel in my life. In 2003, when they lost, I received my diagnosis. The next year, after they won, I was recovering from my stem cell transplant and feeling better.
Lucchino got hit twice by what he called “this miserable disease.” Fourteen years after his transplant, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Cancer survivors share similar hopes and fears
His comments showed that no matter what their occupation or status, cancer survivors share similar hopes and fears.
“Any of us who have a second bite of the apple know how good it tastes,” he said. “Time and the passage of time is something we’re much more conscious of after treatment.” Still, he said, “I’m not going to summarize this as a blessing.”
Fear of his cancer returning dogged him.
“There was the sense of fearing that every slight cough or sneeze was harbinger of the disease… I didn’t put it in my rear view mirror for a long time, probably 10 years or so, then I had prostate cancer, so probably until earlier this morning, that’s when I put it behind me,” he said with a smile.
Not being defined by our cancer
Throwing himself back into work helped, and this also is relatable – even though most of us are not baseball executives – because most of us feel better when not defined by cancer.
His work includes serving as chairman of the Jimmy Fund, the fundraising arm of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the official charity of the Boston Red Sox. Back in 2012, I did my little part by speaking on the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio Telethon. I was really nervous, but people said I didn’t strike out. In Part Two, I’ll talk about that day.
Read Part II of Ronni's story, Surviving a Radio Interview After Surviving Leukemia.
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