When Breath Becomes Air

Sorry, two Cancer related posts in a row, and just days after one another. Till I have somewhere else for this to go, it goes here. In March 2017 I underwent a small operation on my left knee to fix a problem in my left foot. Recovery left me bed-bound for a couple of weeks. During that time I read a lot. One of the books I read was “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. This is a true story. A New York Times Number One Best Seller and it has been said that it is not a book that you can read and just forget about that, and I can confirm that is true.

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

This is a story about Paul Kalanithi’s life and career before discovering he had Lung Cancer, during treatment and afterwards. It’s effects on him and his family and is superbly written. The way this story is written allows the reader to feel the passion behind every word. It’s subject matter is hard to think about due to what it is, but having seen this book pass me by a few times at work I knew I wanted to give it a read.

I’ve never reviewed a book before and I don’t really intend for this to be taken as a review of this book, but more of a review of my feelings and thoughts while reading it. The one thing that strikes me about this book is that although the content subject matter is that of a sad and incurable illness, there is no self-pity throughout the book. Paul Kalanithi begins his journey through this illness with poise and purpose. Simply put, this is a book that everybody should read. It won’t make the subject matter any easier to talk about, but it won’t harm you in any way to read.

But this is just some random person with an illness, why is that important? – That’s a fair and valid question. To which there is no real answer good enough to give. My own answer to that question is personal to me. When I picked up this book, I did not know anything of Paul Kalanithi, his life or his troubles. I had seen the cover of the book and read the title “When Breath Becomes Air” and instantly knew this was a book I must read. Typically I don’t find myself having much time or energy to read (other than the internet). So to buy a physical book and not be able to put it down till finished is special to me. I have read this book twice now and each times the invoking of feelings is strong, but not in an overwhelmingly negative way whatsoever. The statement of ‘when breath becomes air’ is valid to me as a question of when something that we all do so naturally without considering how or why we do it, every second of every day we live… What happens to us when that motion becomes harmful to our bodies? When the very breath we breathe turns against us?

This isn’t a long post, so I’ll finish with some quotes from Paul from this book. I think they are quite fitting to my current situation, so you may see me use them again and again.

“How little do doctors understand the hell’s through which we put patients”

– Paul Kalanithi

Exactly right. Nothing more to say here for the time being.

“The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgement will slip, and yet you still struggle to win for your patience”

– Paul Kalanithi

Yes, he’s got it nailed down in a single sentence here. The book is full of profound nuances such as this. I really recommend you read it.

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

– Paul Kalanithi

This one got me good.