Red Sox hurler, cancer-stricken boy form unlikely bond over illness

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It was Game 1 of the 2013 World Series, and pitcher Jon Lester and the Boston Red Sox were cruising to a decisive win.

“Jon Lester has pitched a gem here tonight,” Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck told the audience, before handing the broadcast over to Ken Rosenthal, who was standing near the Red Sox dugout.

Rosenthal started to talk about Lester’s recovery from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma several years ago, and his work now raising money and supporting children with cancer.

“Lester has done great work with his NVRQT (shorthand for “never quit”) and the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, greeting children with cancer at ballparks around the country,” Rosenthal said. “Lester recently tweeted a message to 6-year-old Zein Youssef, wishing him luck as he started a round of chemotherapy treatments.”

Fox then showed this tweet.

Nearly 3,000 miles away, at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Zein and his father, Tamer, had spent the early part of the evening watching the game. But Zein and his dad missed the shout-out by Rosenthal, because Zein was with doctors.

But then, the phone in Tamer’s pocket started to vibrate with emails and texts with the news – Zein was just on national TV.

Zein’s mom, Radwa, and his 5-year-old sister Malak, had just gotten home and had turned on the TV to watch the game. When the broadcasters started to talk about Zein, she couldn’t believe it was happening. She rewound the segment over and over to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.

“My phone exploded with texts, we got messages on our Facebook page – I didn’t sleep until 2 the next morning,” Radwa said.

Jerri Wilson, the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation’s executive director, who had grown close to the Youssef family over the last year and was often asked by Lester how Zein was doing, was watching the Sox game with friends. When Rosenthal started to speak, Wilson was overcome with emotion. Immediately, a torrent of texts and calls hit her phone.

The relationship between the southpaw and the young Angels fan began with a meeting at Dodger Stadium earlier this summer, when the PCRF set up a meeting that was captured by a Fox News Channel camera.

When the two met at Dodger Stadium, Zein asked Lester if cancer was “hard.”

“Was it hard?” Lester said. “Yeah, it was hard. But you know, I think it helps you later. Once it’s over, nothing else holds you down. Is it hard for you?”

Zein could only nod.

Zein and Lester fist-bumped. The boy then gave Lester a blue wristband that Lester wore the rest of the weekend.

In turn, Zein signed Lester’s glove. It was the glove that Lester carried with him the rest of the “Boston Strong” season – all the way to the Red Sox’ World Series win.

Since that meeting over the summer and the World Series shout-out, Zein has been undergoing extremely intensive cancer treatment. Zein’s father says Lester’s outreach, and help from the foundation, has kept his son going.

“It motivates him,” Tamer Youssef said. “It’s a good reminder that he can do it too. We use examples like Jon to motivate Zein and tell him that he has the supersonic powers so that he can do it.”

"This has been a very positive influence for Zein, because it shows him that others have been through it too."

— Radwa Youssef, Zein's mother

Zein’s mother, Radwa, adds, “this has been a very positive influence for Zein, because it shows him that others have been through it too.”

The support from PCRF and an entire online community has also kept the family going as they start 2014 facing many more months of treatment. The family has started their own foundation to help other children and families with cancer issues, and there is a “Zeinvolution” Facebook page.

Besides his memorable meeting with Zein, Lester met with hundreds of young baseball fans and their families who are dealing with cancer this past summer at ballparks across the country. The foundation, meanwhile, just celebrated raising $30 million in the last 30 years on behalf of cancer research and families that need support.

But the real story for what it’s like for the those patients is playing out on a daily basis for the Youseff family and millions of others who are taking advantage of the outside support from Jon Lester and the PCRF to help them get through their day-to-day lives with the ultimate goal of a cure.

Don Fair, a coordinating producer for Fox News’ Los Angeles bureau, will celebrate in February his 10th year being cancer-free after a bout with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.