Lees beat the odds, and leukemia

Lees beat the odds, and leukemia

CLEVELAND -- The diagnosis came on the last day of the Minor League season in 2001, so the timing was about as convenient as it was going to be.

But that was about the only thing convenient about the disease that entered the lives of the Lee family that September day.

For when Cliff and Kristen Lee's son, Jaxon, was diagnosed with leukemia that day, the couple's early parental life was altered dramatically, to say the least.

"It was scary," Cliff said. "That's serious business. You're talking about his life. He had a better chance of dying than he had of living. It was a shocker. But once we got over the initial shock, we realized that we've got to take care of doing everything we could to get him better."

Luckily, the offseason allowed Cliff the freedom to assist in the early stages of the battle.

Jaxon was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a particularly aggressive form of the disease, at just four months old. He underwent the necessary chemotherapy sessions that led to a series of infections and relapses. Doctors gave him a 30-percent chance of living.

"It's the worst thing anybody can tell you is that your child has leukemia or a disease you don't know anything about," Kristen said. "At first, you think all you know is he has cancer and is going to die. That was very, very hard. But we just kind of took it and went with it. We were going to do everything we could to get through it."

When a winter relapse decreased Jaxon's chances of living even further, the couple had to take drastic action. They flew from their hometown of Benton, Ark., to San Antonio, where, on Feb. 1, 2002, Jaxon received the bone marrow transplant that saved his life.

For 100 days after the operation, Jaxon was in recovery mode, as his body adjusted to the transplant.

It was at that time that the business of baseball pulled Cliff away. He had to report to Spring Training with the Expos, and the job of getting Jaxon to his near-daily doctor's appointments and administering his medication fell on Kristen's shoulders.

Not that she was complaining.

"I could never focus on being by myself," she said. "I was just with him and taking care of him. I was never focused on 'poor me.' Cliff had to be where he had to be, and I had to be where I had to be. I'm sure it was hard on [Cliff] not being able to be there. But that's life and we just dealt with it."

When Cliff was dealt to the Indians in July of 2002, the trade had immediate benefits for the Lees. As a rising prospect in the Expos' organization, Lee was about to move up to the club's Triple-A Ottawa affiliate. Kristen knew she wouldn't get to see her husband much, if at all, when that happened, because she didn't want to take their sick son past the U.S. border.

The trade to the Indians, however, allowed Cliff to remain in the States with stays at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo, and eventually, a September callup to the Tribe.

Still, while Cliff was realizing his baseball dreams, Kristen was realizing the often-pressing demands of a mother's love.

"It was tough on her, because she had to do a lot of the stuff by herself," Cliff said. "For me, I kind of had a release from it. I could go to the park and focus on baseball and not think about that."

Kristen didn't have that luxury, but she feels stronger from the experience. It's an experience she now shares with other families who are fighting leukemia.

"The advice I give to anybody is to be in defense mode," she said. "Don't dwell on the situation. Just put your focus on the child who needs you, because you're all they have."

Jaxon, now 5 years old, was lucky to have Kristen on his side. He hasn't had any further relapses. Next February, five years removed from his operation, he will be pronounced fully cured from the disease.

"We're lucky he's still with us," Cliff said. "You've got to cherish your time with him. It's been a reality check, because you never know what's going to happen or when it's going to happen. Anything can happen to anybody."

Realizing this, the Lees, who had another child, daughter Maci, in April of 2003, are doing their part to raise funds for cancer research and patient services for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

On Sept. 17, the couple, along with Indians senior vice president of finance Ken Stefanov, will chair the society's "Light the Night Walk," which will be held at Jacobs Field. More information can be found by calling (440) 617-CURE or visiting www.lightthenight.org/noh.

"For us, we are just so thankful to be able to use our status to get people involved in the research that's needed to try to cure these diseases," Kristen said. "When you're going through it, you would never think that many kids have cancer. But it's unbelievable how many people suffer through this."

The Lees' struggle has made them appreciate their family all the more.

"It taught both of us to appreciate life," Kristen said. "We're so much more thankful and blessed for everything we have now. We have two healthy kids. That's more important than any baseball stuff."

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