When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

As usual, I finished reading this non-fiction book a day ahead of my Third Tuesday Book Club meeting on June 20th, 2017; unusually, it is a non-fiction book (not fiction, as most of our books are), and, unusually, I will not be attending the Third Tuesday Book Club meeting, as I am going out of town that day. This was a very enjoyable book, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

The author, Paul Kalanithi (1977 – 2015) was born into a high-achieving family from India, and lived in Westchester, New York until he was ten, when his family moved to Kingman, Arizona. His first love was literature, as becoming a doctor like his father was far from his mind. He was valedictorian at his high school, and graduated first from Stanford and then from Cambridge; although he initially considered pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature, Kalanithi then attended the Yale School of Medicine, where he graduated in 2007 cum laude, winning the Dr. Louis H. Nahum Prize for his research on Tourette’s syndrome. He married, and returned to Stanford to complete his residency training in neurosurgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine. At the age of thirty-six, just as all his training and schooling was coming to fruition, he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer.

After a foreward by Dr. Abraham Verghese, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the book begins with the events that led up to his diagnosis. The second part of the book takes up his life, and how rather than abandon his first love of literature, he decided that he wanted to discover the answers he was seeking in life by becoming a neurosurgeon-neuroscientist. The third part of the book covers the twenty-two months after his diagnosis, during which time he was able to return to neurosurgery for a time, graduated from residency, and had a daughter (born eight months before his death.) (Personal observation: His first line of therapy was taking Tarceva©, which is, when my husband’s sister was diagnosed with lung cancer, the drug that gave her an extra year of life.) He spent the last year of his life writing this book; the epilogue was written by his wife.

During his time in training, he learned how to be a doctor; during his post-diagnosis life, he learned how to be a patient, and how to recalibrate his life and goals to match his new life. His wife quotes from an Email that Kalanithi had sent to his best friend after his diagnosis: “The thing about lung cancer is that it’s not exotic. [The reader] can get into these shoes, walk a bit, and say, ‘S0 that’s what it looks like from here. . . sooner or later I’ll be back here in my own shoes.’ That’s what I’m aiming for, I think. Not the sensationalism of dying, and not exhortations to gather rosebuds, but: Here’s what lies up ahead on the road.”

This excellent book both celebrates life and does not flinch from death; and I do wish that I could attend the Third Tuesday Book Club meeting to discuss the book, but I must content myself with doing this Book Review.

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