BOOK REVIEW: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

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?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

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. 



  1. This sounds like an incredible read. It is the sort of book I’d like to read!

    1. Hope you enjoy! 🙂

  2. […] life, and reading them is an enjoyable experience at the same time. Another favourite of mine is ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, by Paul Kalanithi, which really makes you think. Even taking time out to read a book about helpful […]

  3. Wow, what a heartbreaking but eye opening story! Like you, I don’t read much non-fiction but this book sounds riveting and a book that everyone needs to pick up at least once! I’m adding it straight onto my Goodreads To-Read list!

    Tabitha xx |

    1. It really is I’d agree! Hope you enjoy xxx

  4. I’d never heard of this book before now, but will definitely be on my Amazon wishlist for when I’ve read my other two currently on my bedside table.

    Amy |

  5. This sounds incredible, but very hard to read. I definitely want to give it a shot but even your review has me welling up – life is so bloody unfair sometimes.
    Beth x

    1. It really is. It’s such a worthwhile read but you’re right, it is difficult xxx

  6. Oh boy I really want to read this! However… I have pretty bad anxiety when it comes to medical talk… so I’m wondering if this book would be to intense for me…. BUT I REALLY WANT TO READ IT lol you’ve described this perfectly thank you for sharing!!!

    1. I do too and I found it hard but I would honestly recommend it to everyone. It’s life affirming.

  7. Oh wow, this sounds like a very powerful and moving read. Great review.

    1. It really was, two words to sum it up perfectly.

  8. This books sounds like a incredibly moving and one I need to put on my list of books to read.


    1. Moving is definitely the right word!

  9. mummywho says:

    I read this book last year on holiday and I agree no review can do it justice! What a story!! An incredible man and an incredible book

    Kay xx

    1. It really can’t can it? This book will stay with me for a very long time!

  10. I’ve been recommended this book so many times, I’m almost too scared to read. Being a doctor has made me realise that even though we can be incredibly strong and resilient, we are still very fragile at the heart of it all.
    Mind The Medic

    1. I think you should SO read it if you’re a doctor. I’d literally recommend it to everyone but I can imagine being a doctor will be a totally different experience reading this book. Do let me know if you ever do!

  11. I’ve been meaning to get to this book for ages! x

    1. Hope you get around to it soon 🙂

  12. I have not read this book and feel very ignorant because I had never heard of it before. It sounds like a very emotional almost hard story to read. But it be interesting to read someone story from being the one to curing people to the one needing treatment and being powerless despite all their knowledge on the matter

    1. Awh no don’t feel ignorant! It was very hard to read but you summed it up perfect in your last point!

  13. I hadn’t heard of this book before reading your post but it definitely sounds like something I’d be interested in reading. I’ve recently started getting into non fiction novels and this sounds like such an incredible book. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

    1. You’re welcome – would definitely recommend if you want to get into non fiction!

  14. wow, this book honestly sounds amazing. The fact you said you can’t justify how good it is in this reviews makes me believe that it so really amazing. This is 100% going to be one of the next books I buy, I might not read it straight away because I know it is going to be so sad! Thanks for the review ! xx

    1. Ah I hope you enjoy it!

  15. This might be one I read when I’m not feeling emotional as just reading your words gave my chin a wobble!

    1. Definitely don’t read it if you’re emotional!

  16. I’d never heard of this book before your review but it sounds absolutely beautiful. I’m going to add it to my list. I think I’ll end up in floods of tears though! X

    1. You definitely will!

  17. I love reading your book reviews they’re always so detailed and you always leave me wanting to read the book! I’ve been wanting to read more non fiction so this seems like a great place to start! Thanks for sharing lovely!

    Jess //

    1. Awh thank you very much. This would be a great place to start with non fiction xxx

  18. I have heard about this book. The truth is I am scared to read it, but as you say, everyone should probably read it. Thank you for this great review.

    1. Don’t be scared, just be prepared to read a lot of truths. Nothing scary about it.

  19. Oh my gosh, this sounds like such a good book! Definitely adding this to my Reading List!

    1. Amazing book but a difficult one.

  20. I think I’ll have to read this. I’m obsessed with anything surgery related. If only I’d had the Science smarts at school! Grey’s Anatomy fills that void though haha.

    Steph x

    1. Haha you should like this, it’s VERY graphic!

  21. I’ve been looking forward to his review since I saw your tweet about reading it. I need to bump this Higher’s up my TBR.

    1. Hope you liked it! Do let me know if/when you start reading it! xxx

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