I highly recommend reading Paul Kalanithi’s bestseller, When Breath Becomes Air, especially if you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis. At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, 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 is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient. I was often mesmerized by the author’s writing skills, almost a little envious that he could be both a talented physician and such an outstanding creator of non-fiction. There are passages in the book where Kalanithi perfectly captures what it’s like to suddenly be living with cancer.
“Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany—a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters—and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward.”
I was struck by the passages in which Kalanithi expresses his desire to make the most of what time he has left. One frustrating irony for many of us with cancer is that the physical limitations of the disease don’t allow us to engage in fast paced or frenzied activity.
“Time for me is now double-edged: every day brings me further from the low of my last relapse but closer to the next recurrence—and, eventually, death. Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire. There are, I imagine, two responses to that realization. The most obvious might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. And even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod, I ponder. Some days, I simply persist.”
As a neurosurgeon, the author is able to examine the doctor-patient relationship from both sides. His illness also helps him to assess his values, including some of the ultimate objectives of medicine and those who practice it. A dying Kalanithi writes eloquently about his profession and why he chose to dedicate himself to such a demanding field.
“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”
“Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
When Breath Becomes Air is a heartbreaking and ultimately beautiful reflection on the meaning of life as well as our 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? These are the issues that many people with cancer are confronted with and that Kalanithi writes about so passionately and eloquently. He writes powerfully of the profound uncertainty that comes with his diagnosis.
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
Paul Kalanithi died on March 9, 2015, surrounded by members of his large and devoted family. While mourning her husband, Kalanithi’s wife helped to see his manuscript through to publication. Thanks to When Breath Becomes Air, those of us who never met the young doctor will both lament his death and benefit from his extraordinary life.