EACR Members’ Science Book Club: Reviews of ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

When Breath Becomes AirThe EACR Members’ Science Book Club recently had a Zoom session to discuss “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. This was the sixth book that the Book Club has read and discussed, with much of the discussion focussing in on the lessons they learned from Paul’s words and his journey from a newly qualified neurosurgeon to becoming a patient himself.

The general consensus was that it was a very life affirming story, with a few people commenting on how they can relate to it through knowing friends and family who have experienced a similar journey.

Below you can find reviews from 4 members who read the book and see their thoughts.

1Lara Jerman

The author takes us on a journey through his experiences and thoughts as the complex questions of life, death and what makes it all meaningful turn from abstract ideas to increasingly practical concerns and difficult decisions. His address from the final point of this arc is as profoundly beautiful as it is infinitely tragic.

I would recommend this book to anyone who, like myself, is the sort of cancer researcher that does not regularly come into contact with patients. It is easy for us to abstract the data points from the actual humans behind them, especially as we know next to nothing about their personal journeys.

This is also a theme that the author touches on several times as he discusses his medical training and practice and the somewhat futile struggle to keep the humanity and individuality of the bodies being treated impressed on his mind at all times and resist becoming immune to it all.

We are perhaps all wired to abstract the difficult circumstances of patients from our daily work, and this is likely necessary for us to cope. But I believe it is important to remind ourselves occasionally. This book may not be light reading, but it shines a light on a number of very important concerns that patients face.

2Anurag Kumar Srivastava

I felt a lump in my throat towards the end

The writer explores everything in his last 22 months from the day he got diagnosed with terminal cancer. After reading the manuscript, one feels like watching a fairy tale movie where the hero can attain whatever they want. Paul is that real-life protagonist who, through his short life, taught us how to live.

As a child, Paul aspired to be a storyteller and a published author. He accomplishes the childhood dream with the book in our hands. He sought to decipher the sense of life and death; he found the purpose through an arduous journey from studying English literature to finally becoming one of the best neurosurgeon residents.

I felt a lump in my throat towards the end, which was highly emotional and challenging to read. It’s hard to imagine what Lucy went through while recollecting those memories of her husband and penning down for audiences to give a touching climax.

Paul touches on the significance of life and death, as well as on time. It also shows the over-caring nature of Indian moms who only want their children to study at the best places.

If I had to pick some negative aspects, it would be graphic details of neuroscience and brain surgery. Strongly recommended for everyone to know life is beautiful even when you are racing against it.

3Mihaela Matovina

The book is very touching and emotional, and I liked it very much. It tells a story about the neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in his late thirties. He tells the story about his fight with cancer from the perspective of both, the doctor and the patient. At the beginning, the doctor part is prevailing, he is very much involved in the planning of treatment and prognosis, but as the illness progresses he becomes more of a patient and less of a doctor.

It is easy to imagine the struggle he is going through, being completely aware of the severity of the diagnosis and the low chances for the long term survival, but still trying to plan his future based on how much time he has left. The book begins with the description of his childhood in a small desert town in Arizona which is the favourite part for me. Then he explains how he decided to become a neuroscientist because he realized that he will not be able to find the meaning of life only through the English literature which was his first love.

Through his specialization as the neurosurgeon and later in the face of death, he often ponders over the meaning of life. There are several quotes in the book that I like, but my favorite is “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

4Laura Escudero

“When Breath Becomes Air” is the memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36. Throughout his life, Paul searched for what makes life meaningful and worth living. First, through literature and philosophy, and later, through medicine and neuroscience.

It was sad and hard but at the same time beautiful and very inspirational

Throughout the book we see a transformation as he faced different events in life which are highlighted in two parts of the book: “In Perfect Health I Begin” and “Cease Not till Death”.

As a doctor he became more empathetic with his patients. He believed that before operating on their brains he first needed to understand their minds and if there was no place for the scalpel, words were the surgeon’s only tool to guide the patient or their family.

And one day, staring at his own scans, he became a patient himself. He said that when he received the devastating diagnosis, every dream he had for his future disappeared. He faced a new challenge in life, trying to rebuild who he was and define a new identity in the face of dying.

I won’t say anymore, so you can discover the rest. It was sad and hard but at the same time beautiful and very inspirational. “When Breath Becomes Air” has become one of my favourite books and I really recommend it.

5Anastasia Brativnyk

When Breath Becomes Air is an autobiography of Paul Kalanithi, who was foremost a gifted neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal lung cancer during the peak of his medical studies and at a crossroads in his marriage. It is an honest confession of a doctor who becomes a patient who remains a doctor. What do you do when your dreams and goals collapse and do not follow the expected steps of an imagined ladder of success and happy life? After all years of studies and experience, do the moments of life-threatening illness become the true teacher?

Dr. Kalanithi invokes deep mourning due to his lost dreams as a doctor with full potential and unrealized memories as an aged parent. Readers, together with the author, experience five different stages of grief, but not necessarily following the same order harmoniously with Paul. The moment you begin to genuinely relate yourself to his role being a husband, a father, a doctor, and a writer – his voice interrupts. It makes you contemplate how short a human life can be, and if what you do today defines who you want to be tomorrow. The story leaves you with the feeling of great appreciation to Paul for sharing his moments When Breath Becomes Air.

About the EACR Members’ Science Book Club

Laura Escudero

Every few months, the Book Club discusses a different book in a relaxed social environment. Members get to vote on which book they want to read, and after a period of time of reading, are polled for when to start the discussion. We meet informally on Zoom and encourage discussion online through LinkedIn too for those that can’t attend.

You can visit the dedicated website page for the Book Club. You can request to join straight away via the LinkedIn group page and please do introduce yourself!