When Breath Becomes Air: A Review – A Neurosurgeon’s Inspiring Battle with Mortality

When Breath Becomes Air: A Review - A Neurosurgeon's Inspiring Battle with Mortality

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

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

“life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

At the age of 36, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with a form of lung cancer that was not operable. “When Breath Becomes Air” is a deeply personal narrative that chronicles his transition from a dedicated neurosurgeon to a patient battling cancer. This memoir captures his journey from being a diligent student to becoming a loving father, and from living to facing the inevitability of death. The book underscores the urgency of sharing insights and facing the reality of mortality. Paul, as both a physician and a patient, grappled with death, seeking to help others understand and confront their own mortality.

You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.


(There are no big spoilers in When Breath Becomes Air.)

The book begins with Dr. Kalanithi’s early years and his deep-seated fascination with literature and medicine. His exploration of literature as a student at Stanford and later his decision to pursue a career in neurosurgery provide the backdrop for his reflections on the intersection of science and the human experience.

The story takes a dramatic turn when Paul is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. This devastating illness forces him to step away from his dream of becoming a neurosurgeon and instead face his own mortality as a patient.

The book chronicles Paul’s journey as he comes to terms with his illness. He reflects on the life he’s built, the love he shares with his wife Lucy, and the arrival of their precious daughter. Through his reflections, he ponders anew what truly gives life meaning, even when staring down death.

While the subject matter is serious, When Breath Becomes Air is ultimately a beautiful and hopeful story. It explores themes of love, family, finding purpose, and the resilience of the human spirit. It is unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both. It reminds us to cherish the moments we have and the connections we make, even when faced with the greatest challenges.

Throughout the book, he contemplates the question of what makes life worth living, especially in the face of a limited time frame. Personally, for me, these reflections helped with profound insights into the human condition, prompting me to ponder my own life and priorities.

Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still, it is never complete.

My Opinion:

What I Liked:

  • Inspirational Story of Resilience: Kalanithi’s resilience and determination in the face of a devastating diagnosis are truly inspiring. His courage to face mortality head-on and continue pursuing his passions left a lasting impact on me.
  • Profound Reflections on Life: “When Breath Becomes Air” offers a deeply introspective journey into the meaning of life, mortality, and the pursuit of purpose. The book’s philosophical musings are thought-provoking and resonated with me on a profound level.
  • Poetic Prose: Kalanithi’s eloquent writing style and poetic prose create a beautiful and immersive reading experience. His words are imbued with emotion, making it easy to connect with the profound emotions he expresses.
  • Eye-Opening Perspective on Medicine: As a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi provides a unique insight into the world of medicine. His perspective on patient care, empathy, and the doctor-patient relationship shed light on the human aspect of healthcare.
  • Profound Impact on Readers: The book’s exploration of life, death, and the search for meaning leaves a profound impact on readers, prompting self-reflection and a renewed appreciation for life’s fragility.

What I disliked:

  • Emotional Intensity: When Breath Becomes Air delves into heavy themes of mortality and loss, which can be emotionally challenging for some readers.
  • Lack of Closure: Due to the author’s untimely passing, the book lacks a definitive conclusion, leaving readers with a sense of longing for more insight into his life.
  • Limited Insight into Personal Life: While the book focuses on Kalanithi’s professional journey and reflections on life, it offers limited details about his personal life and relationships.
  • Unanswered Questions: Some readers may feel that certain aspects of the story are left unresolved, leaving them with unanswered questions about the author’s journey.

Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

Would I recommend this book (and why):

Yes, 100%. Read this if you have any inclination or desire of being a physician; read this to make sure you are going into that field for the right reasons. Read this to understand and contemplate your meaning, purpose, identity, and mortality.

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

Keep or sell?:

Keep with yourself…for a long long time…

If you haven’t read this yet, please do!

This is an easy 5 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ for me.

There is a moment, a cusp when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.

At last

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head:

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

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

“life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”