Book Review: “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

It’s the sad ending to a neurosurgeon doctor, Paul Kalanithi who found himself becoming a cancer patient, at the end of his 7-year residency. Writing out his journey through the detection and attacking the lung cancer with regiments of chemo and radiation therapies and going back to finishing up the residency and getting his physician license, but then fell ill again and finally succumbing to cancer in 2015. Through this time, he saw the birth of his baby girl. It’s an emotional roller coaster journey with a sad ending. It’s a good book for someone or family members who’s undergoing the same situation.

My key takeaways from this book:

– The hectic pace of the residency, especially for a neurosurgeon, may have contributed to his cancer. Unfortunately, being on top of his field, Paul was too competitive to let go and even went back to perform surgery after going through the therapy and during the remission of his cancer. I don’t know if it’s such a good idea to do that. Life style and career change may be required for someone like that. He paid a huge price for and a great loss of his potential patients.

– Paul is great in writing, having been torn between literature and medicines. It’s natural for him to pursue medicine as his dad and a few of his relatives are ones. Hard for me to imagine how one masters such combined skills in diametrically opposite fields.

– Going from a physician to a patient put him on both sides of tables. He saw both perspectives very clearly. For example, he was asked not to worry about the mortality curve by his oncologist, going against his physician judgement and yet it’s something he could appreciate as a patient when the odds are stacked against him.

– Growing up in a small Arizona because of his dad’s relocation, made him a good wildlife observer and paved his way to becoming a doctor, a darn good one given his attending one of the best medical schools – Stanford and the accolades he received at the end of his residency. He could’ve garnered more than $1M in annual salary! What a heart breaker!

– Paul’s writing stopped about a few months before he passed away. But his wife continued in writing about the last few days of his life.

– Paul’s writing was mesmerizing and touching. Unfortunately, we will not be able to see more of them. It did leave many of us with better understanding of the battle against cancer to be better prepared if one would to encounter one. My heart goes out to his wife, his baby girl, and his family.

This is a fine book for someone who’s on top of the world and near it. The view may be great and the way down may be treacherous. Stay true to your course but don’t forget to enjoy a bit, you never know what tomorrow brings.

His essays.