When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
I’d like to add When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi to my collection of Best Reads. All books are personal choices, so I’ll give you a little background on why I first picked-up this book. In the summer 2015, I was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer. I had a routine colonoscopy, and they found very early signs of colon cancer. Paul Kalanithi, the author was a surgeon at Stanford Medical School, and this book shares he and his family’s emotions about a much worse diagnosis.
When you first hear of a cancer diagnosis, things change in your life. It certainly puts things in perspective. I have a large loving family and community of friends that supported me along my journey to recovery, but there is much time you spend with yourself and your God, trying to accept his plan for you.
Dr. Kalanithi begins his story by saying:
“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”
The one major disadvantage Dr. Kalanithi over me was he was fully aware of his condition from his first CT scan. Throughout the book, I wondered if knowing more helps an individual better accept your diagnosis. I personally knew very little about the path cancer takes. I relied on blindly following whatever my oncologists and surgeon prescribed for me.
Dr. Kalanithi goes on to describe how he lost weight and suffered from back pain, He stayed working throughout his ordeal so he attributed his symptoms to a punishing schedule at the hospital. After a while he realized he could not keep up with his practice, so he went home early; reviews his latest X-ray and lied down next to his wife. “I need you,” he said.
The author then recounts how he got to where he was – growing up in Arizona the son of Indian immigrants, studying English literature at Stanford trying to divine the meaning of life; then after a post-graduate year in England, opting for Yale Medical School, then back to Stanford for his residency. He describes his first experiences cutting up a cadaver; the first death of a patient; his decision to go into neurosurgery where the mind meets the brain, where life meets death, where the meaning of life is never more critical.
Paul Kalanithi was definitely a rising superstar that came from humble background. I thought about how difficult this must be for such a young family. I have five grown boys, who have their own families now, so as I sat with a dozen other cancer patients each week as we went through chemotherapy, I often thought that it was much better that I was going through these treatments than any one of my boys or their families.
Paul Kalanithi undergoes one therapy that seems to work, but again the pain, the exhaustion returns. The cancer reappears. Before he undergoes his next chemotherapy treatment he freezes sperm, and they are blessed that his wife gets pregnant.
There is so more to the story. So, if you want to be inspired by someone’s courage and honesty in the face of a life-changing disease, pick up a copy of the book on Amazon, or at your library. It’s only 230 pages, so you can experience his “beautiful mind” in only a couple chemo sessions.