When Breath Becomes Air

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST • For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

The New York Times Book Review • People • NPR • The Washington Post • Slate • Harper’s Bazaar • Time Out New York • Publishers Weekly • BookPage

Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Books for a Better Life Award in Inspirational Memoir

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

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.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an 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.

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi Summary

When Breath Becomes Air is a non-fiction autobiographical book written by Paul Kalanithi. It is a memoir about his life and illness, battling stage IV metastatic lung cancer. It was posthumously published by Random House on January 12, 2016.In his last year of neurosurgical residency at Stanford University, Dr. Paul Kalanithi experiences negative changes in his health. Rapid weight loss, and severe back and chest pains begin to raise concern for him and his wife, Lucy. Paul worries that a possible cause for his symptoms is spinal cancer – unlikely for people in their thirties. However, when X-ray results in a routine medical check-up return looking just fine, his primary care physician and himself attribute the symptoms to aging and work overload. At thirty-six, Dr. Kalanithi had gained national prominence and become a respected member of the medical community.Determined to finish the last months of his residency, he ignores whatever symptoms have not subsided. A few weeks later, the symptoms come back, stronger than before. Around this time, Paul and Lucy experience a rocky moment in their relationship when Lucy feels that Paul is not communicating with her. Visiting friends in New York, Paul is almost certain that he has cancer and says it out loud for the first time to his friend Mike. Returning home, upon landing in San Francisco, Paul receives a call from his doctor telling him that his lungs “look blurry.” When he arrives home with Lucy, both of them know what is happening. The next day, Paul checks in to the hospital and the room where he examined his patients, delivering good and bad news, becomes his own. With this event, the future that Paul had worked so hard for these past years vanishes before his eyes...

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When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi Book Reviews (5,757)


Stunningly beautiful5 star

I can only echo what other reviewers have said. Read it. Just read it. You will never forget this amazing human and his brave, touching story. 55


Beautiful and moving5 star

Best book I have ever read. 55


A man who has spent his entire adult life striving to delay death came face to face with the inescap5 star

*This review was originally posted to my blog, {Books She Reads}. Portions of this review have been modified. When Breath Becomes Air starts with Paul Kalanithi viewing his own x-rays, revealing cancer that had taken residence in his body. It is clear on the very first page where this journey will end, but it is the journey itself that makes this book so inspiring. Kalanithi took me through the journey of his diagnosis, treatment, and acceptance of death. Along the way I found him to be incredibly brave. As a doctor, he knew the story being told by every x-ray and MRI he saw. A man who has spent his entire adult life striving to delay death came face to face with the inescapable reality of his own mortality. The more that I read, the more that I respected Paul Kalanithi. I was surprised by the amount of empathy that Kalanithi had as a doctor for his patients and the amount of respect he had for the mind and body. He would go above and beyond what was necessary to ensure he was making a positive difference in the lives that he touched. He understood, better than most doctors that I have met, the importance of truly listening to his patients and at taking a second look. Mr. Kalanithi reminds me that we never know what the future holds, we never know when our time on earth will end. We can plan, we can work as hard as possible, but nothing is guaranteed to us. When Breathe Becomes Air reinforces the importance of living in the moment we are in. Have goals, have dreams, make plans, but never forget that it can all be taken away at any moment. So while we plan and chase our dreams, we must not forget about the moment we are in. We must not take for granted the gift of today. Experiencing such a life-changing, out of control event is something one can never truly be prepared for. While Kalanithi had a head start in understanding the changes of his cancer, there was still a great deal to know and understand beyond that of a medical diagnosis and treatment plan. Kalanithi embraced his final journey, as well as anyone, could be expected to, he strived to maintain an open-minded, honest, and positive approach to the most terrifying and irreversible event of his life. His journey is one of the most inspiring stories I have ever had the pleasure to read. His courage and persistence to live life to his fullest potential while his body quickly died is a courage that all of us should strive to have more of in our own lives, in this very moment. These eight words put me into an emotional frenzy. Why do such horrible events happen to amazing individuals who have a passion for life and helping others? Please, don’t do this to him, to his wife, to his family. Let him stay. Let there be a miracle. I knew there was no miracle, I knew exactly the direction that this story was headed. It also didn’t matter. I was completely hooked on every word that Paul Kalanithi had to say. I was committed to following his heartbreaking journey all the way to the end. “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.” -Paul Kalanithi I love this quote. I want this reminder to collaborate and listen to others printed and hung on my wall. I want my three girls to understand the value of their knowledge and experience and to value the knowledge and experience of others. I want them to seek out books like When Breath Becomes Air. A book of death, hope, and living. A book that will dive deep into your soul and make you cry, but also leaves you with a new found appreciation for life. Kalanithi’s perseverance and bravery are heroically inspiring. I hope I will have the ability to be as brave as he was if I ever come to battle with my mortality as he did. 55


Great read5 star

One of the best books I have ever read. Compelling perspective of mortality from someone who dealt with much of it. Highly recommend to all. 55


Hands down, amazing.5 star

I initially came across this book through a forum, about pre-med. Terminology I couldn’t understand. But written in a way I can comprehend. The book talks about patients, treatments, medicine. But really, the book is about morality and love. The ending does not develop until you’ve passed the halfway point of the book, maybe later, but it hits you like a truck. I couldn’t stop reading it, it’s just breathtaking and eye opening, the love between Paul and his wife and fighting through hell. 10/10 would recommend, read it all the way through. Your won’t regret it. 55


Tear jerker.5 star

Finished it on my flight. Def had the sniffles reading it. A great read. Avoid crying on the plane if you can. Hold back the tears. 55

oceans tides

When Breath Becomes Air5 star

I have read this book five times. One of my top three favorite books. Touching, thought provoking and beautiful. In hoping to help a few thousand during his lifetime he has reached millions in his death. His words are woven into a lovely tapestry of what it means to live fully while dying. This book should be required reading for all medical professionals. 55

Reba and Zoey

Literally takes your breath away5 star

I never knew you could be overwhelmed by both a persons life and a book at the same time - they became one in the same. There are no words or comments I can adequately write to express how completely consuming this book is. Tonight, I will start to read it all over again. 55


A profound piece of literature5 star

An amazing, emotional, inspirational read. I am glad I came across this book. Definitely one of the best books I have read so far. A must read. Highly recommend. 55


When Breath Becomes Air5 star

I loved this book! I bought this book to read on an airplane and read it in a day! This book made me think and provided great insight to many things, I can’t list them all. This book makes you think and question what it means to be a patient, a doctor (for me a future PA, hopefully),what it means to be human, and what it means to be mortal. I feel inspired to continue to prepare myself and pursue not perfection, but the asymptote!! Dr. Kalanithi truly was an exceptional person and I just want to say thank you to the people that allowed his work to come into fruition because you gave me an opportunity to know him and in he process know a little more about myself. 55


5 Stars5 star

This book is a beautiful memory of an exceptional human being. I laughed, cried but most importantly it has such a strong powerful message. 55

So fresh they call my febreezy

When breath turns to air.. Kim5 star

Wow, what a beautiful piece of work/art. 55


Heartbreakingly relevant5 star

When Breathe Becomes Air is poignant and real, and it pulled at my heart strings like nohting I’ve read before. Paul’s writing style is so rare, rich, and compelling. I absolutely loved it! This extraordinary book is a “must read” for all people, especially those going into the medical field. 55

Hanlun Song

Such a great work5 star

Such a great work full of love and calm and deep thinking of life and death. I enjoyed it. It touched me and enlightened me in one way. 55


What an amazing journey this man shared with us5 star

Read this book...the prose is some of the best I have ever read..land his message of facing death resonates in a beautiful way. 55

RI lawyer

When Breathe Becomes Air5 star

The absolute best book I've read in years. Thank you, Paul, for taking valuable moments to share your journey with us. 55

Amy Robach

When Breath Becomes Air5 star

I loved this book. I could not put it down. Paul's account of his life as a neurosurgeon and then cancer patient was painfully honest and heartbreakingly true. He writes so eloquently and his words are very descriptive, so the reader is truly moved and can feel what his words are really implying. You feel his love for his patients and family. He truly was a spectacular brilliant man taken way too soon. May God bless his family. 55


A Magestic Read5 star

A well-written book by a brave man who faced a difficult disease with such balance and bravery. 55


When Breath Becomes Air5 star

I couldn't put it down. I will share this one with those closest to me and will keep the paper copy for future reading. Time well spent. 55


Must read5 star

Beautifully written, deeply moving, what an amazing man Paul was. This book is a gift to all of us. 55

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