‘When Breath’ tells cancer experience

Posted March 4, 2016

“When Breath Becomes Air”
By Paul Kalanithi


What happens when you are at the peak of success and suddenly death knocks on your door and everything comes crashing down? Would you let death have the last laugh?

When Breath book coverCertainly, it’s not what Dr. Paul Kalanithi did.

Living fully, happily and enjoying the last moments of life, is what “When Breath Becomes Air” is all about.

In his memoir, Kalanithi provides a profound and personal view of what it means to be near the summit of his medical career and suddenly come face to face with terminal cancer at the age of 36.

On the outside, it seemed Kalanithi had it all. A stunning career, studying biology and literature at Stanford University, then history and philosophy of medicine at the University of Cambridge and finally neurosurgery at Yale University. His long years of residency were nearly complete and his dreamed career as a neurosurgeon was so close he could touch it.

Unexpectedly, being someone who had everything to live for, Kalanithi encounters himself with a deep identity crisis. He passes from being a doctor saving lives to a dying patient.

“When Breath Becomes Air” is an inspirational, heartbreaking and uplifting story. It helps the reader put life (their own lives) in perspective. Most of the time, people pity themselves without thinking that somewhere in the world there’s someone with a much bigger problem. This accounts to Kalanithi’s trail with life and death.

This excerpt of Kalanithi’s courageous writing hooks the reader on contemplating life and its meaning.

“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…. 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,” he wrote.

Any reader could tell that this book is not as complete as Paul Kalanithi wanted it to be. Unfortunately, his death at 37 prevented him from finishing it. But even so, it is an amazing book that is wrapped up nicely by his wife, Lucy, also a doctor, who, he met in medical school.

Kalanithi speaks lovingly of his relationship with his wife and their plans to build a family. Kalanithi’s wife played an important role in supporting him through everything he went through. Lucy performed not only her task as a wife but as a writer in order to finish her dying husband’s book. In it, she writes about Paul’s last days, last hours and minutes.

“Paul spent much of his life wrestling with the question of how to live a meaningful life, and his book explores that essential territory…. What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy,” she wrote.

“When Breath Becomes Air” is an inspiring masterpiece. It is a book filled with deep and mixed sentiments towards life and death. It’s a change of route in Paul Kalanithi’s original course. A legacy left behind based on his life’s experiences and his harsh confrontation with a terminal disease.

The interesting fact is that “When Breath Becomes Air” was Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s first and last book. Harshly speaking, it took losing his life to gain him recognition as probably one of the best writers of the 21st century.

Kalanithi’s writing is honest and insightful. He frequently makes references to the literature he enjoyed so much. It lets the reader indulge in the writing style of a deep, outstanding and brilliant thinker.

“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. We also learn much about the doctor-patient relationship, from both sides. Doctors, it turns out, need hope, too,” he wrote. 

Kalanithi’s memoir is indeed capable of reminiscing one’s own past. The book is like a plane traveling through the past, present and future. In Kalanithi’s case, an uncertain future for him, but certainly an inspirational one for millions who through his writing will find their inner souls. Most importantly, his book will serve as a guide for his daughter, Cady, who was only nine months old when he died.

Readers can undoubtedly perceive that Dr. Paul Kalanithi did not let death have the last laugh; nevertheless it was him who had the last laugh even while going through moments of tremendous pain and sorrow. He learned to appreciate the most important aspects of life by taking full advantage of every breath he took leading up to his final breath of air.

  • “When Breath Becomes Air”
  • By Paul Kalanithi
  • Length: 256 Pages
  • Published by Random House on Jan. 12, 2016
  • First edition
  • Language: English
  • Hard Cover ($15.10), E-Book ($12.99) and Audio-CD ($26)