Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

My Review: 

THIS BOOK! OH MAN, this book has SERIOUSLY done me in! THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE MUST READ! I REPEAT, “THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE MUST READ!” Every person in the world should read this book! It really makes you think about life and death. The words in this book are so moving, honest, and full of compassion. I’m in such awe and have a ton of respect for Dr. Kalanithi for his courage to write this book after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

“Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words.”

It’s been a week since I finished this book and I’m still thinking about it. This book is so beautifully written you are immediately hooked beyond prevail. At the same time the story is devastatingly sad because you ultimately know where it’s heading. I felt that it was only fitting to honor Dr. Kalanithi by posting this review on the 1 year anniversary of his death since I finished reading his book so close to that date.

The synopsis of this book covers the premise of this book so I’m not going to repeat it. I’m going to tell you what I love about this book.

Lines from the book I loved:

1. “I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

2. “Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die—but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”

3. “The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

4. “Diseases are molecules misbehaving; the basic requirement of life is metabolism, and death its cessation.”

5. “The most obvious might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. And even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod, I ponder. Some days, I simply persist.”

6. “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

7. “It’s easier when the patient is ninety-four, in the last stages of dementia, with a severe brain bleed. But for someone like me—a thirty-six-year-old given a diagnosis of terminal cancer—there aren’t really words.”

8. “Doctor’s need hope, too.” This choked me up a bit. I’ve never thought about how doctors themselves feel when they’re diagnosed with an illness. Prior to reading this book, I think, I must have thought that doctors were immortal or something. This definitely puts things into perspective.

Other things that made me fall in love with this book:

– I really liked that Dr. Kalanithi talked about his relationship with his wife before his diagnosis and also after.

– The Epilogue which was written by his wife Lucy Kalanithi. (So Beautiful and that’s when my tears began!)

– The  Cover.  I like the other cover with him in the scrubs as well, but I absolutely love the above cover. The feather symbolizes many different things. Just to name a few: purity, truth, calm, peaceful, and loving. I think all of these are fitting for this book. This cover to me is pure and breathtaking, just like this book!

Thank you, Dr. Kalanithi for having the strength and courage to write this book.  Your words will definitely live on!

~May your soul forever, Rest In Peace.



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