Books: When Breath Becomes Air

when breath becomes air

Death.  The unavoidable, unpreventable; the inevitable.  The illusive thing about it, that devilish thing we call death, is that we never know when it’s coming.  Though the stats say that life expectancy in the developed world has a trajectory that would blow our forefather’s minds, those are just numbers. Almost daily I feel like I hear about another person who has been struck down by some kind of cancer.

“It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.”

I follow Cup Of Jo’s blog religiously but it wasn’t until I was halfway through this book that I realized this was part her story.   Dr. Kalanithi was her brother in law, married to her twin sister, and she had written so beautifully about him and his passing.


When Breath Becomes Air is a poignant memoir written by Dr. Kalanithi, a 36 year old Neurosurgeon/Neuroscientist, who, in his final year of residency was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. With his world ahead of him, destined for numerous successes, with a mind that could help to unearth medical advances, his life was suddenly on a very different path.


Kalanithi was going to die. An otherwise healthy, strong and active man was struck down at such a whopping rate that he went from superman to patient almost overnight. From the surface, this is the most interesting piece to this book, to watch a Dr. turn into patient and to dip into his mind and gain that understanding when two worlds collide is profound in and of itself.

“how little do doctors understand the hells through which we put patients.”

But as I feverishly flipped the pages it was not only his prose – Kalanithi, writes so beautifully – but it was his thoughts. He had such a way with words that let you into a world that many of us fear; the world of death and dying.

He wrote these words to his daughter:

“When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with sated joy. A joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

When Breath Becomes Air made me not only think about death in a different way but it also made me think about life through the same lens. Life is a gift, one we receive daily. I know that can sound simple but when you read a book like this, written by a person that worked so diligently to achieve, that was on track to do amazing things (I mean world changing things) and there was nothing that could save him proves my previous point. Life is a gift; a gift to be cherished.

“I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,”

By the end of the book I was streaming tears. Kalanithi’s life tragedy was made beautiful by not only his account and the help that his words would provide for countless others, but by the breathtaking words of his wife, Lucy, in the Epilogue.


Read the Epilogue.




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