When Breath Becomes Air Book Review


We all have those things in life that stir our souls and change who we are for the better. When Breath Becomes Air is one of those books for me – truly life changing. It’s written by a Yale and Stanford trained neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, after his devastating stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis. This is an extremely unusual circumstance for a 36-year-old, non-smoker. His writing is profound and yet, so easy to understand. He writes about his transition from physician to patient but also the process of dying from the perspective of living. It really resonated down to my core and caused me to reflect on how I live my every day.

I don’t want to ruin the book for you (and I definitely recommend that you do read it as soon as you can), but I do want to share my main take-aways from this transformative memoir.

  1.       We are all going to die.

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. 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.”

I have always interpreted the phrase “Live like you are dying” as stop doing the things you don’t want to do and start doing what you want – quit your job, travel, spend time with the ones you love, to live extraordinarily. In reality, we are all dying. We just don’t know when. To live a full life, this has inspired me to focus on what matters every day even in the small things.

  1.       Relationships make life complicated and meaningful at the same time.

“’Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?”, she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said.”

Paul and his wife, Lucy, decided to have a baby months before his death. This dialog and decision intrigued me. They continued living their lives even with death approaching quickly. Paul explains that their daughter brought him “a joy unknown to me in all my prior years”.

  1.       Truly living is living in the moment.

“I don’t believe in the wisdom of children, nor in the wisdom of the old. There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in the moment.”

“I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.”

I live a lot of my life looking forward and looking behind. I dwell on past mistakes and anticipate the future. We can’t change the past and are not guaranteed the future. My ultimate take-away from this book is to live in this very second. Enjoy life and those in it, and when it’s over, I know it’s not really over. Eternity with God is the end goal, but he gave us this time on earth for a reason. Don’t waste it.

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