Published in an American medical journal, a poem about lung cancer and its causes has found a receptive audience in China, which is in the middle of a prolonged spell of heavy air pollution.
The piece, titled “I long to be king,” is told from the perspective of a “ground glass opacity” — a growth in the lungs that is often an early sign of a tumor.
From tiny to strong,
From humble to arrogant.
None cared when I was young,
But all fear me we when full grown.
The poem went on to blame smog and detrimental lifestyle choices such as smoking for the disease:
I’ve been nourished on the delicious mist and haze,
That sweetly warmed my heart,
Always loving when you were heavy drunk and smoking,
Creating me a cozy home.
The poet, Zhao Xiaogang, is a 40-year-old surgeon at Shanghai Pulmonary Hospital. He told Sixth Tone he wrote the poem to educate people about diseases of the lungs.
“The Chinese public has very little knowledge of lung cancer,” Zhao said. “Turning medical jargon into simpler language helps the public understand the progression of the disease and the methods used to treat it.”
Zhao, who just this week performed three lung-related surgeries in a single day, said that the number of lung operations in China has grown steadily in recent years. “In 2006, our hospital had between one and two thousand pulmonary surgeries,” he said. “Ten years later, that number has risen to more than 10,000 — the most of any hospital in China, and probably more than anywhere else in the world.”
In his 10 years as a thoracic surgeon, Zhao has spent many evenings in the operating room until midnight. “Three surgeries in one day is a small number,” he said. “Tomorrow I have eight.”
A study by the Cancer Institute and Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences estimated that there were more than 4 million new cancer cases and nearly 3 million cancer deaths in China in 2015, with lung cancer being both the most common form and the leading killer. The study cited smoking and pollution as prominent causes of cancer.
“Smog will definitely contribute to lung cancer in the long run,” Yang Gonghuan, professor of epidemiology and public health at Peking Union Medical College and former deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Sixth Tone. According to Yang, smog is especially harmful to the respiratory systems of the very young, as it can trigger a variety of conditions from asthma to heart attacks. “But for now,” Yang said, “smoking is still the leading cause of lung cancer in China.”
“I long to be king” was published in October in CHEST, a medical journal published by the American College of Chest Physicians. The poem was only recently picked up by Chinese media, as heavy smog once more reminds people of the associated health risks.
CHEST began publishing poems written by doctors and scholars in 2008. Its “Pectoriloquy” section, for example, includes poems by authors from around the world. Zhao, who wrote the poem in his native Chinese, later translated it to English himself.
CHEST’s poetry editor, Boston pulmonologist Michael Zack, wrote in a 2008 editorial that poetry is “a tool physicians may use to express or visit that whole vastness beyond their scientific intellect.” CHEST did not immediately reply to Sixth Tone’s interview request.
Barbara Kiser, Book and Arts editor at scientific journal Nature, told Sixth Tone that she regularly features poetry that engages with science in the journal’s opinion section. “Science and poetry are not-so-strange bedfellows,” she added.
China has a long and rich history of oral culture to draw on when combining poetry with medical science. The Compendium of Materia Medica, a medical encyclopedia published during the Ming dynasty, cites more than 400 historical records and literary works, including ancient poems, in its references to medical matters.
Before Zhao, physicist Li Miao of Sun Yat-sen University in southern Guangdong province and chemist Zhou Qifeng, the former dean of Peking University, had already become well-known in China for their poems and lyrical works promoting the scientific ideas central to their respective fields.
A self-described lover of literature, Zhao began cultivating an interest in poetry in 2015. Since then, he has written 14 poems, six of which were published on the website of the Shanghai Medical Association. His favorite poem, “Unforgettable Love,” encourages patients to harness the love and support of their families in the battle against cancer.
“For me, writing poems is a way to reveal my feelings,” Zhao said. “It also helps to create an intimacy between me and my patients. I want them to know me better so that they feel they can trust me.”
(Header image: Two women check their chest X-rays at a hospital in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 14, 2003. Fu Yongjun/VCG)