Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

We spend life running after goals – those As, the best university, the dream job, a spouse who completes us – ticking boxes for the road to the perfect life but sometimes we forget that tomorrow is not promised to us – today is all we have. What if you spent your entire life working towards a fantastic future only to find, just as you reach your goal, that you have no future at all.

Paul Kalanithi was always a high performer. Happily married with a small child, he was about to finish years and years of training to become a neurosurgeon when a devastating diagnosis turned everything he knew on its head.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is a page-turning autobiography that digs deep into the life of a neurosurgeon being diagnosed with lung cancer at it’s worst – stage four – and its consequences. The autobiography doesn’t have a feel-good aspect to it but it’s an emotional investment worth making – it’ll make you dig deeper into acknowledging just how temporary life is and the story will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading the last page.

I began to realise 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.”

What do you do when confronted with death after planning your whole life? What makes life worth living? These are just a few of the questions Paul Kalanithi had to face. His diagnosis leads to the books’s grim undertone but despite that, it proves to be staggeringly inspiring, highlighting how fragile yet resilient a human is.

Kalanithi turned to medicine to help him find substantial matter to the answer to an age-old question: what makes human life meaningful – searching amongst the suffering experienced by patients everyday who still manage to tug onto hope as if their life depended on it, quite literally. Eventually, Kalanithi would directly experience what makes life worth living in the face of death. His role as a doctor would be switched to that of a patient, redolent of what happens when an “all-powerful” human is faced with a force greater than he is. The change from blue scrubs into a blue hospital gown brings down a plethora of emotions that wash away every aspect of the future because you’re not certain you’re even gonna survive till lunch. He would be the one trying to find meaning outside of everything else he once recognised to be his life.

Paul Kalanithi passed away on March 9th, 2015, Palo Alto, California, United States.


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