cancer, when breath becomes air, paul kalanithi

Book Review: “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

I take notes while reading most books. It’s become a habit, especially with great ones. My memory has sometimes faltered and I feel the act of physically writing down notes cements some loose sands of memory into my head. It forces me to take longer with challenging material, ensuring that I understand and retain it. I still struggle with it, though, often forgetting books that I’ve read or people’s names or where exactly I put my phone. What’s the name of that character on that one show that was really good? I don’t know either. But, I don’t think I will forget Paul Kalanithi’s book “When Breath Becomes Air” as it truly delves into a topic people are grimly afraid of: death.

I’m scared to die. I believe memory is an indicator that we are passing through our bodies, growing in strength and then fading. Nothing is permanent and everything will change. Eventually I will get old(er) and eventually I will pass on. It saddens us when people pass “too early” or before their time, yet it’s a natural part of our existence.

Whenever I struggle to remember something or turn to my iPhone or Alexa or the latest technological innovation that is designed to supplant (another phrasing might say “enhance”) the human memory, I’m reminded of that end. It’s a distance dot on the horizon, a little shudder in the back of my head. Sometimes it lingers, other times it quickly goes away, but I know it won’t leave me.

That brings to point the wonderful book by Kalanithi. He was on his way up in life. He was married, had attended Yale School of Medicine and was nearing the end of his residency at Stanford University as a neurosurgeon. Then, at age 36, he found out he had Stage IV lung cancer. What follows in the book is his examination of his life as he lives with this disease.

A photo of Paul Kalanithi. Credit:

Kalanithi has a beautiful voice and writing style. He ask the poignant question: What makes life meaningful to go on living?

He begins a journey in this book to ruminate on that theme. His value as a doctor was helping people get better, but he introduces a radical thought: a doctor should be guiding patients/families to understand disease or even death. People aren’t just problems to be solved. He introduces some ideas that helped him with patients: avoiding jargon and detailed statistics, focusing on accuracy—but leaving room for hope—and trying to develop openness to the patient.

Through it all, Paul grapples with his own question on what makes his life worth living? He writes,

“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

A powerful message through is the continual need to strive. He writes, “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” That ultimately is the message of the book for me. Human beings are flawed creatures with poor memories who will eventually die, but we can strive for art, we can strive for kindness. And hitting one step closer to that higher unreachable note is a beautiful step in itself.


I can’t recommend this book enough for people who are struggling or going through their own issues in life. It’s a great reminder of the wonderful people out there and a strong message about leading a meaningful life.

More details:

  • Find it on Amazon here.
  • Length: 228 pages
  • More reviews on Goodreads here

One Comment

  • Caroline at Costa Rica FIRE

    I loved this book too. I felt it was a beautiful memoir, not just for people to grapple more thoughtfully with death but to be more thoughtful about life. I just read an advance copy of a new book, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, which is a personal development parable about a 70-year old economist who misses winning the Nobel Prize and starts a journey to re-examine his life. It was also a poetic read and of course not as sad as Kalanithi’s book.

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