When Breath Becomes Air

I don't tend to do whole posts centered on just one book, but I do make exceptions, most often for nonfiction works. When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, is such one. I read this unfinished memoir in less than a day, sucked in by his cerebral, yet lovely, prose, his philosophical pondering, and his story in general.

For those unfamiliar with this bestseller, Kalanithi was a relatively young, brilliant, neurosurgeon at Stanford who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He wrestled with careers in literature and science as a college student (while I wasn't even a fraction as intelligent as he, I did feel he was a kindred spirit in this sense, since I also faced this debate) and ultimately medicine won. He was incredibly bright and successful, although his description of his own accolades I found modest and humble. The first half of his part of the book is devoted to his background, giving us context for how he handles his diagnosis and course of treatment. I felt that even though brief, this part of the book gave me a decent picture of the man- one that I'd like to be friends or have as my own doctor (god forbid I even need a neurosurgeon). 

During the second section, the reader is already in awe of Kalanithi as a person, medical professional, and scientist. I was deeply affected reading his musings on life and death, and feeling conflict as he wrestled with his treatment options and whether or not he and his wife Lucy should have a baby with the sperm they proactively froze when they learned he had cancer. Death on one level is so simple and natural, but that's just biologically. Cells die. It's what they do. When human emotions and familial bonds are brought into play death becomes one of the most complex human events possible. 

The idea of knowledge is paramount to this book. Knowledge is power, so they say, but it can complicate matters profusely. At one point Kalanithi's oncologist tells him, gently, that whenever he is ready to let her be the doctor and allow himself to be the patient, she can make it happen. Having the information he has as an expertly trained physician proves to often be incredibly helpful, but it also makes the process of battling the disease more challenging as well. Doctoring oneself is no small task. 

Kalanithi loses his battle quicker than I anticipated, and his accounts of how much he suffered (before he stopped writing) were heart-breaking. His wife Lucy takes up the third portion of the book, writing about his final days and how she started coping once he did pass. Her descriptions of his final days and his interactions with their baby brought me to tears, which rarely happens when I read. 

It's cliche, but this book really does make you think about time and who, and what, is important in life. What makes you happy? What makes you feel valued? Does this sense of value make your life worth living? How important is your career? When we face death how would we react? This concept got me; if I was diagnosed with a terminal disease what would I do? Would I continue my life as is, or would I make drastic changes? We all want to think we'd go down with dignity, but you can't predict that sort of behavior. 

There's a blurb on the back of the book from Ann Patchett that says something to the tune of this book being something anyone could read. I had proposed it as a book club selection and it was vetoed by someone who lost a family member to cancer (understandable, since none of us had read it). I think, though, it's something that everyone can take something away from, even when such a loss is still fresh. It's a book that can help prepare, help heal, and help provoke thought. 


  1. This book is sitting on my end table waiting to be read - and as much as I want to read it, I haven't been able to get myself to pick it up. I guess i'm just anticipating the emotional impact it will have on me haha. But yes, I've heard only amazing things about it, and I was so hoping my online book club was going to pick it the other month, "forcing" me to read it sooner than later.

  2. I have this book on my shelf but haven't gotten to it yet. I lost a friend suddenly a couple weeks ago and the synopsis makes me think of her, you know all the projects she was involved in and probably left unfinished.
    I imagine it will be a powerful and emotional read.