Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

If you found out you only have a few more years to live, how would you spend your remaining days? Would you quit your job and halt your career completely? Would you take up a hobby, maybe the one thing you’ve always wanted to try? Would you just try to spend as much time with your family as possible? Those are the questions that Paul Kalanithi has to face when he learns that he a terminal disease.

When Breath Becomes Air is an autobiographical book by and about Paul Kalanithi about his battle with stage lung cancer. Paul is a 35-year-old neurosurgeon in his final year of residency. His book exemplifies how he courageously deals with his situation and gives his readers lessons about living life and dealing with death.


Paul immerses you into his life, taking you from his childhood to undergrad studies at Stanford to Yale medical school to his residency. He recaps significant realizations he makes along with way about what he should do with his life to give it meaning, which in a sense is what the book is all about.

The terminal illness gives his life an entirely new perspective. Paul had the next forty years of his career planned out, but suddenly he no longer knew if he would make it through even to the next year. Now it seems as if all his life was building towards becoming a full-time neurosurgeon, but now that might not ever happen. So what meaning did his life have?

This book details how Paul did indeed found meaning and a sense of purpose in his life even though it would be unexpectedly cut short. His writing and story brings inspiration into how we should be living our own lives. It forces us to think about how sometimes we seem to be living only for the future, and brings a new meaning to the quote I’m sure most of us have heard one time or another:

“Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” -Bil Keane

Although the saying is cheesy, the message is important. It’s too easy to forget to live in the present, to always be thinking about what’s next in the future.

Turning back to the book, Paul Kalanithi imparts to us this wisdom and more which he gains in his last years. Living in the present is one of the things that I got out of the book, but Paul’s story sends another, even stronger message: “to face death with integrity,” as his wife, Lucy, puts it.

Paul comes to accept that he has has this deadly disease. He doesn’t resist it. Instead, he takes the opportunity to cherish the moments he has left. This bravery is really what makes his life inspiring, and the book definitely worth reading.


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