At a Glance

Paul Kalanithi's poignant memoir When Breath Becomes Air recounts his fight against Stage IV lung cancer. A brilliant medical student, Kalanithi had a bright future in neurosurgery ahead of him when he received his diagnosis. His New York Times op-ed "How Long Have I Got Left?" led him to write this memoir.

  • Kalanithi was raised in Kingsman, Arizona, where his mother fostered his love of literature. He went to Stanford to study literature, but then fell in love with science. After graduation, he spent one year in Cambridge before enrolling at Yale medical school.

  • Kalanithi met his wife, Lucy, in medical school. Together, they moved to California to begin their residencies—he in neurosurgery and she in internal medicine. While chief resident, he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.

  • Following his diagnosis, Kalanithi and Lucy decided to have a child, Cady. Thanks to a drug called Tarceva, his cancer stabilized, and he was able to return to work. Eventually, however, Kalanithi succumbed to his illness. He died in March of 2015.

Summary

When Breath Becomes Air is neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi's heartbreaking memoir of life and death. Written in the last year of the author's life, while he was dying of Stage IV lung cancer, the memoir recounts Kalanithi's life story, beginning with the onset of symptoms, then taking us back in time to trace his development from a bookish teenager to an inquisitive student and finally to a talented and well-trained resident with a bright future in neurosurgery ahead of him. Kalanithi's cancer diagnosis derailed his career, but gave him time to write this memoir, which ruminates on life, death, and what it means to be human when a debilitating illness strips you of your identity.

Kalanithi began having symptoms while a resident in neurosurgery. His back began to spasm, and in a period of six months he lost enough weight to cinch his belt two notches tighter. He suspected that he had cancer even before he saw a doctor. His X-rays looked fine, and he relaxed a bit, chalking up his fatigue to the long hours and stress of being a medical student; then he started having chest pain. He and his wife Lucy were supposed to fly to New York to visit friends. Before they left, Kalanithi had a series of tests done, including a chest X-Ray, but when he arrived at his friend's house he was so exhausted that he decided to go home early. His primary care doctor called the moment he got off the plane in San Francisco: his X-Rays were blurry.

Here, the memoir jumps back in time, taking readers to Kalanithi's childhood. When he was just ten, his family moved from Bronxville, New York to Kingsman, Arizona. His father established his own cardiology practice in Kingsman, and Kalanithi and his two brothers came to love the desert; but the public schools in Kingsman were the worst in the nation, and his mother worried that they wouldn't receive a proper education. She joined the PTA, lobbied for the school to offer AP classes, and gave her three sons books recommended for the PSAT and SAT. This sparked Kalanithi's lifelong love of literature, which led him to study literature and literary theory at Stanford. At some point, however, he began to question whether literature had all the answers he sought about the meaning of life. His interest in psychology and neuroscience increased, and he began taking science classes to fulfill the prerequisites for medical school.

Kalanithi spent a year studying medical history at Cambridge before he decided to enroll in medical school at Yale. His first two years were spent studying anatomy and pathology, building the base of knowledge he would need to become an effective surgeon. His medical training included dissections of human cadavers, which gave him the opportunity to practice his skills and helped anesthetize him to...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)