Format: Library book
Links: Goodreads | Amazon UK
Blurb: 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.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?
Review: I don’t really know why I’m bothering to review this. If you’ve already read it, you’ll know that no matter what I say isn’t going to do it justice and if you haven’t read it, believe me when I say my review isn’t going to do it justice. In fact I don’t believe any review will do this stunning book any justice. I read this in 2 sittings. And it was only 2 sittings because I had to go asleep and wasn’t able to finish it in 1. I’m not a non-fiction reader really but I believe this is the sort of book that everyone would benefit from reading.
When Breath Becomes Air is the memoir of neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi. He spends a decade perfecting his craft and training to be a neurosurgeon then one day, he’s diagnosed with inoperable and terminal lung cancer. This book shows us Paul, in his every state of being. A doctor, treating patients. Some dying and navigating his way through the doctor-patient relationship, to becoming one of the dying patients he’s been treating all these years. Paul talks about life, death and the meaning of it all. And what makes a life meaningful.
This book was split into two parts; in the first, Paul talks briefly about his childhood, growing up and school. Moving on to figuring out what he wanted to do with his life and whether his heart lies with medicine or literature. He documents his education into becoming a neurosurgeon and all the trials and tribulations that he faced along the way. I loved this chapter because this was the one where Paul really questions the big life and death questions, when he’s faced with dying patients and patients which rely so heavily on him.
Part two is where Paul flips the switch and the focus is on him, his own cancer and his own questions or mortality, life and meaning. When his own life is now altered by his diagnosis. This was a hard chapter to read about Paul’s decline, his treatments and just the general pain and suffering he felt when his body was riddled with cancer which affected his almost every move. But despite all of that, Paul manages to go back to work as a neurosurgeon for a short time, showing his determination and strength amidst all of this.
The book finishes with a chapter from his wife, Lucy, who “completed” the book after Paul was too ill to continue writing and died before the book really ever got finished. This is the part that broke me in half, hearing his wife’s account of Paul and his strength and attitude towards everything that had happened to him was heart wrenching. The pair were clearly so in love and it was heart breaking to hear her talk about her final weeks and days with Paul and their only 8 month old baby who will grow up never knowing her dad.
I put this book down in floods of tears to the point where I thought, ‘I’m genuinely never going to stop crying over this‘. It’s not that I haven’t read stories, seen films or watched documentaries about people with cancer. I have, plenty but this book struck a chord somewhere deep inside me which I can’t imagine anything else of a similar nature will again. So eloquently written, so honest, so real. Absolutely heart-breaking but utterly profound at the same time. Once I’ve stopped being so sad about this book, I just know that I’m going to be thinking long and hard about some of the issues brought up in it. Love, life, death and what makes a meaningful life.
* Just as an end note I would say that you should be careful about reading this book if you’re squeamish or triggered by graphic depictions of surgery (there’s a lot of this in the first part). It also sent my health anxiety sky-rocketing at some points which thankfully I managed to subdue so if you suffer from HA, please also be wary, too.