Dr. Paul Kalanithi wrote When Breath Becomes Air (2016) in the last two years of his life. The first page reads “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed. Cancer; widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training and had examined scores of such scans over the past six years. But this scan was different; it was my own.” At the height of a promising career, the 36-year-old doctor was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer.
The book is presented in two distinct parts. The first half is about a young, bright man and his journey toward becoming a doctor dedicated to saving lives. In the second half, Kalanithi discusses his experiences with confronting, examining, and accepting death as both patient and physician. After the diagnosis, Dr. Kalanithi followed his oncologist’s advice and embarked on a journey of discovery, aiming to find meaning in his life. For a while, his health improved and he was able to practice neurosurgery. When neurosurgery became too difficult, he became a writer. During his final days, Dr. Kalanithi persevered through the nausea and pain of chemotherapy and typed his book wearing silver-lined gloves when his fingertips began to crack from the effects of chemotherapy. During this final period of his life, Dr. Kalanithi and his wife Lucy, who is also a physician, decided to expand their family. When Lucy asked if having a child to say goodbye to would make his death more painful, Dr. Kalanithi replied, “Well, wouldn’t it be great if it did?”
The author stated, “Life isn’t about avoiding suffering, it’s about creating meaning.”
As a counselor, I strive to help people deal with difficult situations. The desire to understand how people cope with adversity led me to read When Breath Becomes Air. In an interview with Katie Couric, Lucy stated that, in writing the book, her husband’s goal was to “help people reflect on their own situations, whatever that is. He wanted to help them start personal conversations about health care and end of life.” The book is interspersed with quotes from great literature and is told with courage, honesty, and grace. I found the content inherently sad, yet inspiring, and well worth the emotional investment.
Published posthumously, When Breath Becomes Air has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 51 weeks. It has been translated into 30 languages, and was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for best autobiography.
ABOUT LINDA PETERSON PROWSE
Linda Peterson Prowse is a retired teacher, guidance counselor, and substance abuse counselor. Although she misses interaction with her former colleagues and students, her 2014 retirement has allowed her to take some much-needed time for herself. She enjoys sailing her 16’ Hobie Adventure Islander, singing with the Emerald Coast Chorale as well as the David Ott singers, practicing Yoga, gardening, traveling, and reading. Her favorite novels include classical literary works, poetry, and memoirs. Linda is the mother of one son, Daniel, and stepmother of two sons, Derek and Dylan. She currently lives in Panama City with her husband Steve.