-- It began with a spot on his nose.
Derek Lowe kept looking in the mirror. A clogged pore, he thought, maybe a pimple. But it kept getting bigger.
"By the middle of December, I finally had to get it biopsied," he said. "They took it completely off and it comes back two days later. They got cancer."
The Boston Red Sox pitcher is fine now after having the tissue removed on Dec. 31. But it was a stressful end to a year that started so well.
After losing his job as closer, Lowe moved back into the rotation for the 2002 season. In his first start, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. In his fifth start, he pitched the first no-hitter at Fenway Park in 37 years.
He finished 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA and was third in the AL Cy Young Award voting. And he had a whole offseason to work out and look forward to building on that.
His arm felt fine. His confidence had returned. But he kept wondering about the spot that he first saw in late November.
It got so big -- "the size of my thumbnail" -- and so red that he began calling himself "Rudolph." It was so sensitive that his eyes watered when he touched it.
"I never, ever in a million years thought it was cancer," he said. "My wife said, 'You've got to go.' She couldn't stand looking at me anymore."
Neither could his teammates.
"I was down here throwing with Derek and I'm like, 'Hey, you've got to go in. You've got to get that checked," reliever Alan Embree said. "He was kind of in denial. I'm saying, 'It's not going away, Boss. You might want to get that checked.' "
Lowe had squamous cell carcinoma, a normally slow-growing lesion that is less dangerous than melanoma. He was shocked at first but felt at ease when he was told that his type of cancer rarely spreads.
"Identified promptly and removed promptly, it is almost always cured," said Harley A. Haynes, vice chairman of dermatology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
The spot grew quickly but the cancer was restricted to his nose. The procedure to remove it left a scar, but the alternative would have lopped off the tip of his nose.
"I'm an ugly guy as it is," he said. "I would have been in real trouble."
Lowe took three weeks off and resumed workouts about a month ago. Now the blonde-haired and fair-skinned right-hander is in training camp with the Red Sox, the scar the only sign of his scare.
"This is strictly from sun exposure. It's not a hereditary thing," he said. "It's basically what you've done to your own body."
Haynes, who was not involved in Lowe's case, said most people get most of their exposure to sun by age 20 because children have summers free and often go outside for recess during school.
"When teachers have recess at noontime it's, 'Okay, kids, let's play in the sun,'" the doctor said. "That's like, 'Okay, kids, let's play in the traffic,' from my point of view. We could do a lot more as a society in protecting our youngsters from sun damage."
Lowe plans to be part of that. He said he will talk to children about the dangers of sun exposure.
"Kids sometimes listen to people they see on TV more than their parents," he said. "Hopefully, one person goes home and tells their mom, 'Hey, I saw Derek. He was talking about skin cancer.' Their parents will make them use it."
As a youngster in Michigan, Lowe's ears would peel and his lips would get blisters from the sun. An avid golfer who rarely used sunblock, he's lived in sunny Fort Myers since 1997.
Bill Morgan, the Red Sox's team physician, said all players were screened for signs of skin cancer at the all-star break or during the second half of the season. Lowe showed no signs of a problem.
"It's addressed every year. It's the same as smokeless tobacco," Morgan said. "But some people choose to heed those warnings and some people don't. It's the old, 'It won't happen to me' sort of thing. It always happens to the other guy."
At their spring training complex, the Red Sox keep bottles of sunblock next to the shaving cream, mouthwash and hair gel in the clubhouse bathroom.
"Now you just put sunblock on when you brush your teeth in the morning," Lowe said.
He even learned that it takes about 20 minutes after application for sunblock to be effective.
"Putting sunblock on at the beach is ludicrous," Morgan said. "You want to do it before you go to the beach."
Lowe was told that the scar on his nose should be gone within a year. He will have checkups every six months to make sure he is still cancer free. But he doesn't expect his pitching to be affected.
"If I have a good game or bad game," he said, "it's not going to be because I had skin cancer on my nose."