When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi book summary

When Breath Becomes Air Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: When Breath Becomes Air

The Book in Three Sentences

The memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon at Stanford University, who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his mid-thirties. Kalanithi uses the pages in this book to not only tell his story, but also share his ideas on how to approach death with grace and what it means to be fully alive.

When Breath Becomes Air summary

This is my book summary of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary includes key lessons and important passages from the book.
  • On the suffering that often accompanies death: “With what strife and pains we come into the world we know not, but ’tis commonly no easy matter to get out of it.” -Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici
  • I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context.
  • Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?
  • Learning to judge whose lives could be saved, whose couldn’t be, and whose shouldn’t be requires an unattainable prognostic ability. I made mistakes. Rushing a patient to the OR to save only enough brain that his heart beats but he can never speak, he eats through a tube, and he is condemned to an existence he would never want… I came to see this as a more egregious failure than the patient dying.
  • As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives—everyone dies eventually—but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness.
  • One of the earliest meanings of the word “patient” is “one who endures hardship without complaint.”
  • When you take up another’s cross, you must be willing to sometimes get crushed by its weight.
  • “Boredom is the awareness of time passing.” -Heidegger
  • The pain of failure had led me to understand that in neurosurgery 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.
  • Death comes for all of us. It is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms.
  • Dealing with the fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.
  • Can we become comfortable with the most uncomfortable thing in the world—death? If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least grow more familiar?
  • As a doctor, I was an object, a cause. As a patient, I was merely something to which things happened.
  • Life isn’t about avoiding suffering. The defining characteristic of an organism is striving.
  • “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.”
  • The tricky thing about terminal illness (and life, probably) is your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you and then you keep figuring it out.
  • How do you decide what to do with your life when you’re not sure how much life you have left? Maybe in the absence of certainty we should just assume we’re going to live a long time. Maybe that’s the only way forward.
  • If you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any.
  • No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.
  • 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.
  • “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their labor.” -The Bible
  • Graham Greene once said that life was lived in the first twenty years and the rest was just reflection.
  • Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past.
  • What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.

Life is short. But we go about most days not thinking about our inevitable death. It might not be a pleasant thing to dwell on, but maybe if we did we would try to live 

When neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi got the news that he was going to die of cancer in his mid-thirties, he wanted to make sure he left his piece of wisdom in writing. Writing a friend about his diagnosis he said, “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Bront√ęs, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” 

Writing it wouldn’t be easy because of his fragile and worsening health. In When Breath Becomes AirKalanithi shares his feelings on being diagnosed with terminal cancer at the peak of his life and career with so much potential in front of him. 

Here are the 3 most interesting things I learned about this man’s life:

  1. Kalanithi was passionate about neuroscience and literature. 
  2. A career in the medical field proved difficult and taught him much about the intricacies of life and death right from the start. 
  3. Terminal cancer made Kanaithi’s think a lot about his career, life, and the future of his family. 

Let’s see what we can learn from the life and philosophy of this amazing man!

Lessons we can learn from book

Lesson 1: Neuroscience and writing were Kalanithi’s two passions.

Growing up, Paul Kalanithi fell in love with literature. He decided he would study literature, but in the summer before college, he found something else captivated him: human biology. On his way to Stanford, he got a book that explored the idea that the brain is a machine that allows the human mind to exist. His fascination led to him taking neuroscience courses. 

Kalanithi liked to ponder 

But he understood that literature wouldn’t give him the whole answer. He needed to keep studying He also knew if he wanted to understand life, he needed to understand the most unavoidable part of it all: death. What better way to do this than practice medicine?

Lesson 2: He learned much about life and death during his time in medical school and later as a doctor.

During his time in medical school, Kalanithi spent a lot of time with cadavers. Most students covered the faces of the cadavers and didn’t learn their names, but he was moved by their humanity.

His first experience with a birth was also about death. A woman went into premature labor and lost both of her twins. Because of this experience, Kalanithi was left with the image of life one day, death the next. 

When he specialized in neurosurgery, he realized how much responsibility he would have in life or death decisions. He struggled with the expectation to be able to judge who could be saved, who couldn’t, and who shouldn’t be saved. If he rushed a patient to the OR to save their life but they were left to live unable to speak and eat, was this really the life they wanted?

He witnessed many deaths, both from patients and even people who worked at the hospital. When he got deeper into his practice, he tells of his regrets that his exhaustion and 

Lesson 3: Kalanithi’s life ended in his mid-thirties from cancer, but his reflections on the illness can teach us much about life.

By the time his residency was ending, he had earned awards and the respect of senior doctors. He even had a great job lined up. But after months of back pain, he found out that he had malignant lung cancer that was spreading across his body.

Following the terrible news, he contemplated what to do. He talked with his doctor about how disturbing it felt not to know how long he had left. If he had many years, he wanted to continue his practice. If he had only a couple, he wanted to be with his family and 

He also had a hard time being both doctor and patient. As a doctor, he was a force of action. But as a patient, things happened to him. He gained 

He and his wife decided after much deliberation they would have the child they always wanted. Lucy gave birth to a daughter Cady, and Kalanithi was able to be there for the birth though he was weak. He ends the book with a message to Cady, saying she has given him the greatest joy of his life. 

In the last months of his life, he focused on being with family. He and Lucy grew closer at this time and spent time with friends and playing with baby Cady. He lived what life he had in the best way he could, saying, “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.” 

Eventually, he became too weak to finish the book. Lucy wrote the epilogue, describing him facing death with integrity. It’s unfinished, but perhaps that’s what makes this book about confronting the uncertainty of death most realistic. But we are thankful to Dr. Kalanithi for sharing such beautiful thoughts about what gives life meaning.

When Breath Becomes Air Summary Review

When Breath Becomes Air


Diane S rated it really liked it 4.

As I finished this book with tears running down my face I asked myself, "Why did you read this book? You know it was going to be sad, how could a man dying of lung cancer before the age of forty be anything but." Yet to just classify this memoir, to classify this novel as such is to devalue the man he was. He was a lover of literature, a neurosurgeon, a scientist, a son and brother, a husband and father. He tried to live each day to the best of his ability, he helped many and he acknowledged the doctor patient relationship had a big disconnect with the reality of life, how their lives would change after being diagnosed with a serious illness. He was not a saint, he cried when given a death sentence, but his thoughts were not always for him, he always wanted to make sure his wife had a life after he was gone. So in many ways this was a profoundly beautiful read by a remarkable man.  

Maggie Stiefvater rated it 5. it was amazing.

Shelves: adult , nonfiction , recommended
A gasping, desperate, powerful little book, bigger on the inside than outside. 

Maxwell rated it 5. it was amazing.

Shelves: 2016 , non-fiction , i-own-it , botm ,favorites
I don't think you should read this book because the story of an incredibly gifted man who had his life taken away at such a young age might give you the motivation to live life more fully. I think you should read this book because that talented, inspiring man has incredibly important things to say derived from his own experiences, and it's important to listen and learn from them. 

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.” -Paul Kalanithi.

Also watch this video summary for more understanding: 

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