Reading List // When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

I’d seen this book mentioned on a couple of “Books You Must Read” and “Books Of 2016” lists, so preordered a copy of the paperback which was released January 5th.

Paul Kalanithi was 36 and close to graduating as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage IV terminal lung cancer.

That’s when he began writing this book, sadly, although he did graduate, he died before he could finish it.


To start it was hard to read about Paul’s earlier life. Learning of his many studies, his passion for biology, morality, literature and philosophy. His trying to make sense of where they intersect and ultimately deciding to pursue neurosurgery.

Because you know the sad ending, it’s almost like you don’t want to get emotionally involved. By allowing yourself to get to know the talented surgeon, with huge potential, you know you’re going to make it harder for yourself further down the line.

Doctor and Patient

Paul’s description of entering the same room he had delivered diagnoses and treatment plans to patients hundreds of times before, for the first time, as a patient, was overwhelmingly sad. It illustrates just how quickly a person’s world can flip 180.

Having normally been on the other side of the process, as the surgeon, it gave him a unique take on the illness. Comparing how he was being treated with how he previously treated his own patients.

Paul’s complete frustration at a doctor treating him as paperwork. Being seen as an item on his list to tick off, rather than as a patient, or even a human, first. But immediately being reminded back to when he himself had been on rounds, just wanting to go home and quickly get to the end of his patient list.

“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”


Explaining his decision of how to spend what was left of his life, was made harder when combined with the unknown figure of ‘how long have I got?’, which is ultimately what influences such a decision.

“I knew I was going to die – but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell.”

If he had 10 years he’d go back to surgery, only a year and he would rather write. Less than that and he would simply spend any time he had left with his family.

The book is somewhat poetic. Reading through Paul’s acceptance that he is going to die soon, seeing the thought process that he went through in order to try and make sense, and come to terms with it all.

“Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

Paul was such a talented writer that this book is captivating, even with such a harrowing subject. The way he saw life, and death, is inspiring.

The epilogue written by his wife Lucy is just as touching and beautifully written.

I definitely agree with the ‘must read’ status, it will give you a different perspective to life, and appreciate what you have a bit more than you do right now, and to make the most of it. RIP Dr. Kalanithi.

“…even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living”

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