When Breath Becomes Air | Review



Title: When Breath Becomes Air

Author: Paul Kalanithi

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir, Health

Publisher: Random House

Rating: N/A. I find it difficult to rate a memoir/autobiography.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” ~ Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air


‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is a sobering read, centring on Paul Kalanithi and his journey from doctor to patient upon discovering his diagnosis of stage IV cancer. At age 36 Kalanithi is on the verge of completing his neurosurgeon residency. However, his life is upended upon his diagnosis.

Drawing upon anecdotes from his life (childhood, med student, surgeon, and his personal life), Kalanithi continues to search meaning and purpose. In this book, Kalanithi questions and grapples with his diagnosis and definition in life. At times, I found his writing a little gratuitous with classic literature references (he is an avid fan and lover of English literature and I’m not as well-versed in it as I’d like to be—goes to show I need to brush up on my reading), to sobering and gritty, to hopeful and determined.

Overall, I enjoyed his writing and voice—particularly his clever use of similes, his stark honesty of the reality of disease and prognosis, and his continuous strive for living a meaningful life. What struck me the most in this book wasn’t only his message to strive for meaning in life, but in a clinical (medical) setting, technical excellence is not enough—compassion, empathy, and integrity is needed.

“Here we are together, and here are the ways through—I promise to guide you, as best as I can, to the other side.”

“I had met her [the patient] in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved.”

I suppose given my background these aspects resonated within me. And even if one isn’t in the medical field, the message is still applicable—live with integrity and treat people with compassion.

Yes, this book is sad. Yes, you’ll probably cry (I did the ugly cry in the Epilogue—no shame in that). However, this book doesn’t only dwell on death and mortality, but it’s also a testimony to life, love, and meaning. His wife, Lucy, so eloquently puts it:

“What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.”


(Ugh, I had to use the hospital’s cheapo stethoscope because I lost my ‘nice’ one in one of the wards…)

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