Cancer in remission, Farrell thankful for many things

Red Sox manager savors friendships, support and plans to return the favor

Cancer in remission, Farrell thankful for many things

BOSTON -- John Farrell was enthusiastic about a business trip on Nov. 19, as he prepared to fly from Tampa, Fla., (where he spends some of his offseason) to Nashville, Tenn., to help the Red Sox recruit David Price.

Farrell was thinking a lot more about talking points that might help persuade Price to come to Boston and hardly at all about his own recent ordeal -- recovering from cancer.

But every now and then, you get a reminder when you least expect it.

As Farrell handed his driver's license to an agent in the TSA pre-check line, he was greeted with a double take. The agent looked at Farrell's full head of hair in the picture and compared it to the head in front of him that didn't have much covering it.

MLB Tonight: John Farrell

"He said, 'This looks different,"' Farrell recalled. "I said, 'That's what cancer will do to you.' He said, 'I hope you survive."'

Farrell can laugh about that story because he's not only surviving, but thriving.

Measured progress

Oct. 22 was the big day. That was when Farrell was told that the chemotherapy treatments were a success and that his cancer (Stage 1 lymphoma) was in remission. Farrell was cleared to go back to work full time, though in truth, he had never really stopped coming to work.

"I can't say that there was a major shift once the scan came back clean," said Farrell. "I had been doing things even as I was receiving treatment. Year-end meetings with individual players, I was present in those. The shift was a sense of relief from being having it be determined I was in remission. Since then, it's just been gaining stamina and strength."

Workouts are very important to Farrell, and it was tough having those subdued for a while.

"I wanted to get more active, I wanted to go do some things," Farrell said. "At first, I'd just go for walks. I couldn't run. If I started to run, I'd feel my legs give out after about a half-mile. So then I got on a bike for a little while, and just week over week, I'd try to increase and add activity."

As the old saying goes, sometimes you have to walk before you can run. But Farrell can now do the latter again, and it is no small achievement.

Farrell looks forward to 2016

"I've been up to four miles. Not very often, but I try to get a minimum of four days a week of running in," Farrell said. "To get through, it takes a little more drive. There are times I'm dragging my [butt] to get through it, but I'm getting through it."

'Wearing a lead suit for two months'

Farrell, who has always had a strong and sturdy frame, withstood chemo better than a lot of people. But he still wouldn't wish it on anyone.

He went through three cycles, and the second is the one he doesn't like thinking about.

"The middle cycle was hell," Farrell said. "You've just come through what the first cycle is doing to you physically, and you're in the middle of the second one knowing there's still another one waiting out there. By the third one, the light is at the end of the tunnel.

"The middle one is a mental challenge because you're battling those most lonely moments wondering, No. 1, are you going to get through it? Two, is it going to work? And three, you're watching the physical appearance of yourself start to disintegrate. There's a lot of stuff kind of running through your mind at that point. I felt like I had a lead suit on for two months."

Comforted by friends

Farrell had been friends with Terry Francona for 27 years by the time he got the cancer diagnosis. They had been teammates in Cleveland in 1988. From 2007-10, Farrell was Francona's trusted pitching coach in Boston. Through the years, they always kept in touch. But the friendship was taken to another level by the way Francona supported Farrell after the diagnosis.

Francona on working with Farrell

As fate would have it, the Indians were in Boston on the August day Farrell underwent his first treatment. Francona accompanied him there, and made him laugh during the quiet moments.

But even after the Indians left Boston and went through the rest of their season, Francona stayed in daily contact with Farrell.

"We've shared a lot as friends, teammates and someone I worked next to and worked with," Farrell said. "This is another layer to that relationship. Going through treatment, I looked forward to his text message every single day. I knew it was coming. Either a laugh or just genuine caring that would come through. I'm appreciative of what we mean to one another."

Curt Schilling, a member of the cancer fraternity, coached Farrell mentally during the process. It was a reversal of roles, as Farrell was Schilling's coach with the Red Sox when they won a World Series together in 2007.

"My conversations with Curt were incredibly helpful," said Farrell. "He'd say, 'Hey man, today's treatment, it's like you're getting prepared for a start. Just get through today.' And you keep putting one day after the next and you're getting through it. I think as an athlete, you've been in situations where you're preparing for this competition today, and that's what every day of treatment became. That was my gameday. But it was every day. You just focus on each day."

The cancer fraternity

Farrell made new friends during the process, including the late Flip Saunders. On the day Farrell announced he had lymphoma, Saunders asked a Minnesota sportswriter if he could track down Farrell's phone number through a Boston sportswriter. Saunders had revealed his own lymphoma diagnosis just three days earlier, though his was more advanced by the time it was detected. Saunders got in touch with Farrell immediately and checked in often.

"In his own way, he kind of coached me through it," said Farrell.

High Heat: John Farrell

Saunders, the head coach and vice president of the Timberwolves, died Oct. 25, a mere three days after Farrell learned that he was cancer-free. The news hit Farrell like a ton of bricks.

"That hit hard," Farrell said. "When word came out that he had passed, that hit close, and mentally, you took a timeout. You're brushing up against your own mortality."

Just because Farrell is now healthy, he isn't about to take his situation for granted or pass up the chance to help others like Saunders did for him.

"The one thing I do find after going through this is that when I hear of other people that have been stricken, diagnosed, or whatever, before you'd acknowledge it by hearing it, now I find myself carrying through with something, writing a letter, calling, sending a note," said Farrell. "So many people reached out to me, now it's my repaying of what I received."

Ready for 2016

When the Red Sox arrive to Spring Training in February, it's hard to imagine anyone will have more enthusiasm than Farrell. Though he was often at Fenway during the final couple of months of 2015, he didn't travel with the team and wasn't in the dugout for home games.

"Whether it's a player coming back from an injury or being in my situation, you appreciate it that much more," Farrell said. "And that's the case again. I'm fortunate enough to work with great people. We have what looks to be one hell of a roster and all these things are exciting to be involved with, and to be able to do it in Boston, I'm very eager to get back out there. It's been fantastic. To see how things have come together so quick and how specific to our needs, it's been awesome."

Maybe Farrell will even have a full head of hair by Opening Day. In truth, he doesn't much care. He's just happy to know he will again be putting the Red Sox cap on his head every day.

"I'm not worried about how I look," Farrell said. "It was never much to look at to begin with. The more simple, meaningful things shine through, not the periphery things. That's the best way I can describe it."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.