Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air


Maryam Mahmood Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air showcases the importance of living life to its fullest by finding the meaning of life.

Heart breaking, emotional and truly an inspiring memoir. 

Paul Kalanithi’s biography When Breath Becomes Air narrates his short life that ended at the age of 37.

After consulting with a specialist about his alarming symptoms in May 2013, Kalanithi was diagnosed with “stage-4 non-small-cell EGFR-positive lung cancer.”  This news devastated both Kalanithi and his wife. After multiple cycles of chemotherapy, Kalanithi started to see improvement in his health. 

Unfortunately this improvement was short lived. Kalanithi lost the battle on March 9, 2015.

This memoir was truly a moving piece of literature not only because of the tribulations of cancer but also due to the myriad of underlying concepts. 

Kalanithi described, in his poetic perspective, life and death. 

“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.”

Kalanithi makes the point that life is not meant to live in suffering but to add meaning.

This quote particularly resonated with me since it demonstrates how fragile life can be. Handling the delicateness of life while enjoying it is a very difficult task. 

Additionally, Dr. Kalanithi taught me that having fun ensures that the delicate balance of life is achieved. It taught me that enjoying life to its fullest is not a suggestion but rather a requirement. 

Furthermore, Kalanithi opened up about working in the intense environment of neurosurgery.

“The pain of failure had led me to understand that technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters.”

The preface of this quote embodies the concept of humanizing medical professionals. They are still human and not only deserve respect for their work but also have their own personal struggles. This is apparent when Paul Kalanithi went from the invincible doctor to the dependent patient.

The memoir as a whole resonated with me because of this doctor’s incredible story. 

When he was presented with an obstacle in life such as cancer, he persisted through it. He constantly displayed happiness in the midst of his difficult situation. He was a living example of finding harmony between life and fun.  

I am constantly worried about exams, grades and my class curriculum. Dr. Kalanithi, while he agrees that work ethic is vital, also believes that work is not all that life can offer. 

Life is full of opportunities that also pertain to pure enjoyment. Those opportunities should be your reality. 

Dr. Paul Kalanithi wrestled to answer the question “What makes life meaningful enough to live on?” 

Even when fighting for his life, he was able to answer that question.      

Adding meaning to life allows one to live on. For him, that meaning was found in family.

While the adventure of finding your meaning of life will present obstacles, persist through them. Once you know what makes life meaningful for you, life will be worth living. 

It will allow one to breathe with ease and not experience the fatality of air.