Written while returning from my Galapagos trip, posting now.
It’s happening—the moment that we all dread as we age, that point in time where we realize that we are becoming our parents. When I was a child, my father was a busy man, completing his residency in plastic surgery, establishing a practice, climbing the academic ladder. He didn’t have much spare time for us kids, but occasionally he would make an effort to take us on an outing—the circus perhaps, or the zoo. On those outings, I remember one thing above all. As we walked along beside and behind him, he would methodically point out every physical imperfection he could see on passersby—a bulbous nose here, a weak chin there, a jagged scar perched on an otherwise perfect cheek or a poorly repaired cleft lip. The world of the unbeautiful was his oyster and he knew what to do to fix it.
On our recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, I found myself scanning faces and bodies in a similar fashion, but I am no Pygmalion out to transform the luckless Galatea’s of the world. What my roving eyes were seeing under that equatorial sun were skin lesions aplenty—a benign nevus here, a senile keratosis there, but then, more importantly, an obvious basal cell carcinoma above the upper lip of one of my fellow explorers. And then came my dilemma: do I say something to the hapless traveler? Can I convey in a casual sentence or two, “By the way Joe, you have a skin cancer on your face. You should have that looked at when you get home, but don’t worry about it! It isn’t a melanoma, the life threatening kind of skin cancer.” What to me is a simple helpful hint might be to my companion a bomb dropped in the middle of that peaceful archipelago. I took the easy way out. I exercised my right to remain silent rather than risk ruining his vacation.
There was one incident, however, on a bumpy Zodiac ride from the good ship Endeavor to our first sandy beach landing for snorkeling. Our naturalist guide Xavier had applied a coating of zinc oxide over his nose and cheeks so thick it looked like Comanche war paint. Yet still, that greasepaint could not disguise an obvious bump arising from his right malar prominence. He admitted to me that his doctor in Guayaquil wanted to “cut it off.” Quickly I motioned for my father and together we performed the first National Geographic skin examination of the tour. As the zinc oxide was wiped away, simultaneously we crowed, “It’s benign!!!”
A day later, Xavier admitted to me that he was so relieved he called his wife and children on the mainland to tell them the good news. Have I mentioned that dermatology was a field I strongly considered while in medical school? Reporting from afield…. Miranda.