Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities


Gail Ghai
Sarasota, Florida, United States

Egyptian stela with hieroglyphics
Wooden Egyptian stela showing the woman Isetweret adoring the god Re-Horakhty, 945–712 AD. Distribution from the Egyptian Research Account, 1896. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

The room shuffles nervously as the oncologist takes the microphone. He’s the first speaker at the breast cancer lecture and he does not hesitate. Opens with a memorable phrase: Cancer comes to the warm parts of the body.

I’ve read that ancient Egyptians noted how malignancy loved those cozy corners of the lung, breast, womb. The parts that hand over breath, milk, life. And it was the Egyptians who first cauterized the breast with a tool called a “fire drill.” I shiver though the August heat hangs in the air.

Here in this vigilant room, other hieroglyphics are spoken: feeder node, radio isotopes, stereotactic. But when it’s her turn, the technician turns poetic as she describes a breast’s tumor. It can be small as a snowflake.

And I think of my grandmother’s words describing her cancerous x-ray. It was a shadow’s speck, she told us. It looked so innocent. Shaped like a baby’s tear.

As each survivor retells the history of her body’s mutations, we flinch, we shudder in their painful narrations. One woman describes how each cell seemed to turn on itself like a rabid dog.

All grips. All fangs. All clawing at our hearts.

GAIL GHAI is a poet, teacher, workshop leader, and author of three chapbooks of poetry as well as an art/writing poster entitled “Painted Words”. She has served as Poet-in-Residence for the Pittsburgh Cancer Caring Center, North Allegheny School District and the International Poetry Forum. In addition, she has presented poetry workshops for the Peace River Writers, Poetry Life and the Florida Writers’ Association. Awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination and a Henry C. Frick scholarship for creative teaching. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies in Canada, U.S., and Britain including Descant, The Yearbook of American Poetry, The Delhi-London Quarterly, Poet Lore, JAMA, and Burning Wood Journal. She is moderator of the Ringling Poets in Sarasota, Florida.

Winter 2022



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