When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air Book Report

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air, published in 2016, is a memoir chronicling Paul Kalanithi’s life-ending experience. The book has been organized chronically following Kalanithi’s life trajectory from childhood to death. At 36 years during his final year in the neurosurgery placement, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. On the verge of becoming one of the best neurosurgeons and starting a life with his wife, Lucy, Kalanithi starts battling a terminal illness.

His life abruptly changed where one day he was the doctor treating the terminally ill, and the next one, he was the dying patient. What can make one’s life worth living in the face of death? What steps can one take when the expected future flattens into an unending present? These, among others, are questions that Kalanithi faced in his last days. With the news about his death, the future he had shown to his wife and children evaporated.

When Breath Becomes Air: Part 1

In part 1 of the book, the author explores Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student into a neurosurgeon. Kalanithi was born and spent his early life in Kingman, Arizona. Growing up, Kalanithi spent more days with his mother, who encouraged him to pursue a degree in English Literature. Later, he observed how his cardiologist’s father instilled trust in his patients. Even with his literature degree, Kalanithi was inspired to seek a degree in medicine from the Yale School of medicine. Intrigued by the brain’s relationship with an individual’s sense of identity, he decided to pursue neurology.

When Breath Becomes Air: Part 2

In part 2 of the memoir, Kalanithi tries to find meaning in his prognosis. Looking at his scans, he laid his eyes on tumors that had spread and invaded his multiple organs, including lungs, spine and liver. As per him, the simplest diagnosis was that cancer had metastasized. At this moment, he knew that death was inevitable. However, he went for physical therapy and regained stamina and strength. Lucy, his wife, offered social support and walked with him during his treatment journey.

In this book, Lucy offers an epilogue recounting her husband’s final months. According to her, Kalanithi’s third treatment option stopped working, and it was later realized that cancer had spread to his brain. Realizing his days were almost over, Kalanithi told Lucy he was ready to die. Upon the removal of the breathing mask, he slipped into unconsciousness.


Examining “When Breath Becomes Air” book, it represents a tragic yet inspiring story. It was tragic in that Kalanithi’s optimistic life was cut short, and it was inspiring in how he handled his last days on earth. The reader is also fascinated to read about death from the doctor’s and the patient’s perspectives. Through this book, the reader comprehends what is truly important in life and is challenged to confront the inevitability of death. The book is an eloquent articulation that humanity faces mortality every day, conscious or unconscious of it.   

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