When Breath Becomes Air


By Paul Kalanithi

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6 reviews

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor, the next he was a patient struggling to live. In this book, he offers a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient.


23 Jan 2018


Everyone in book club finished this book and most people enjoyed it, although to say we enjoyed a book following someone dying is a bit of an odd statement. A lot of people preferred the very end part of the book where we being told about Paul's death by his wife, the writing style was very different to the main body of the book. Some members of the book club attached to the author very quickly and really loved the way he was trying so hard to help everyone he came across. Others in the book group felt his style was quite cold and stand-offish and that he was quite selfish trying to keep going with his career rather than maybe helping his wife with hers. At points we wondered whether Paul cared as much for his wife as he did for his patients, we wondered what it must have been like living with someone who was so driven in his career.

We all felt he had a unique way of looking at his death, he just kept on trying to live his life as best he could throughout everything. He didn't seem to be angry about it, or feel that he had to have as many experiences in his life as possible as many people do. We then discussed how people tend to change the way they've been living their life once they know their end date, maybe it's a gift to know how long you have so you can make sure you are really living rather just existing?

We felt that this book wasn't meant as a way for us to get to know Paul but more as a way for him to get a message across to us.

We all felt that this is a good book for all medical professionals to read, and in fact we felt that the medical professionals in the book group got a lot more out of the book than those of us who are a step or two removed. We all found the cases he discussed in the book to be fascinating and almost wanted there to be more of them.

Overall we gave this book 7 out of 10.

08 Jun 2017

A greatly appreciated gift to the Book Group, the members were deeply moved by how Paul faced the challenge of his impending death and documented the course of his decline, sometimes with painful honesty. This book was both moving and disturbing and many of the group found it impossible to read much of it at one time as it triggered an intense emotional response. The sadness of such a promising life being cut so tragically short is hard to come to terms with, nevertheless, the group members were grateful to have been given the opportunity to share this story with Paul Kalanithi and his wife Lucy. A powerful, emotional read.

05 Jun 2017


This book was on our list of titles we wanted to read so were really pleased to get a free set.

The group 'enjoyed' the book if that is the right word to use. It created a lot of discussion about health, the expectations we set ourselves, and others expect of us, to be classed as a successful person, and our attitudes to death and dying. We discussed the fact that in certain careers that there is an expectation that you have to work unreasonable hours - whether in health, education or other professions with the hope that you will achieve the success and reap the benefits of that commitment later in life. In Paul's case this was not going to be the case.

For some members of the group this book came at difficult personal times but they found it helpful in giving them an insight into the physical impact that cancer has as well as the psychological impact. This book is the author's attempt to understand his own mortality. It is not the definitive guide to death and dying. It is certainly a book anyone working in healthcare and palliative care should read

We felt that the author was giving himself permission to talk about death and that this allowed him and his family to come to terms with this. Many people don't want to face their mortality or do not want to upset their families by talking about their end but for those that can and do, it can offer them a chance to find peace in themselves and for their families.

The book is a reminder that each day is precious and to be valued. We felt that the elephant in the room and the book was the lack of discussion about the expectations placed on certain professions to work themselves to exhaustion. A badge of an honour was seen as the excessive number of hours worked in a week which makes living a life almost impossible. Were the hours worked by the author a factor in his cancer?

The group found the book to be very readable especially the section written by his wife Lucy. It is a book that we would recommend to others to read in a book group due to the sheer volume of discussion points raised.

An excellent challenging and emotional read

05 May 2017


With thanks to The Reading Agency, we received a set of books for our Preschool Parents Book Club. A heartbreakingly hopeful book written with clarity and beauty by both Paul and his wife Lucy. Inspirational book.

29 Apr 2017

mother ann

This book was donated to the reading group.

This is a very moving memoir of the life of a young man diagnosed with a terminal illness which both reflects the life led and recounts with very clear prose the progress of the illness and the author's stoical awareness that those seeking 'what life (there) is in death' simply 'find it air that once was breath'.

Apart from the clarity and beauty of prose what makes this book so special is that as a Doctor, Paul Kalanithi knows all too well the likely course and prognosis of his cancer whilst as a neurosurgeon he appreciates better than most the delicate nature of the body in which each mind lives.

What makes life worth living in the face of death, what does it mean to live a good life and how do we talk about dying? These are the questions which Paul Kalanithi addresses and the book is a worthy memorial to the life of a man who died sadly young (37) which manages to be honest, sad and very uplifting at the same time. The epilogue by his widow Lucy is particularly poignant.

A very good book with wise things to say. Anyone interested in reading further about the nature of neurosurgery (as explained to laymen) might also enjoy 'Do no harm' by Henry Marsh and anyone wanting to look further at the sound advice given about how to talk about dying might also enjoy Atul Gawande's 'Being Mortal'. Also, as Dr. Kalanithi himself recommends in the book, Montaigne on how to die (and live).

27 Apr 2017

Roz Butterworth

An emotional read, but a fascinating insight into a brilliant doctor's mind, and how his life collapses and he evolves on his diagnosis. I had to read it quickly in two sittings, it was so compelling. He was so driven by his career, and he knows this, but seems helpless to escape the pressure of his ambition to be the best, in spite of his illness.
A great description of how being ill really is - no battle, just weariness, apathy and pain at times. I empathise with my own experience. All doctors should read this book - it has a lot to say about doctor/patient relationships. It also raises the issue of control - who has it, and when to let someone else take the reins. And also to ask the question of how your life, long or short should be spent.
His relationships with colleagues, friends, family are well drawn and honest. "I can't go on. I'll go on" quote from Samuel Beckett rings so true.
His wife's view is an interesting and touching end. Heartbreaking. But a story that will resonate with so many people.
Thoroughly reconmend.

My question for Lucy would be - How is life now for her and their child? Good I hope.

Roz Butterworth READ book group.

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