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  Table of Contents  
Year : 2017  |  Volume : 54  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 589

When breath becomes air

Diagno Labs, Gurgaon, Haryana, India

Date of Web Publication24-May-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Puneeta Bhatia
Diagno Labs, Gurgaon, Haryana
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijc.IJC_14_18

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How to cite this article:
Bhatia P. When breath becomes air. Indian J Cancer 2017;54:589

How to cite this URL:
Bhatia P. When breath becomes air. Indian J Cancer [serial online] 2017 [cited 2022 Dec 7];54:589. Available from:

Published by: Penguin Random House


Kindle edition INR 99,

Hardcover edition, INR 330.

Paperback edition, INR 399

ISBN: 9781847923677

“When Breath Becomes Air” managed to arouse my curiosity by its very name. The book opens with a foreword written by Dr. Abraham Verghese, who is himself an accomplished author.

This unputdownable book is a poignant story of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon in the USA, who is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at the extremely young age of 36 toward the last phase of his neurosurgery training. Dr. Kalanithi has written this book in the first person. He had always been a writer, in fact he had obtained a master's degree at Stanford before he decided to join medical school.

Paul and his wife Dr. Lucy had been eagerly awaiting the culmination of their long and grueling residency programs. They had plans in the pipeline and dreams in their hearts, including that of starting their family. But with the diagnosis of Paul's illness, all their dreams and plans simply evaporated, just like breath that becomes air. The book is an account of the 22-month journey of Dr. Paul Kalanithi from the time his illness was diagnosed till the time, he finally bowed down to the emperor of maladies.

What is commendable is that in spite of the diagnosis and the harsh treatment it entailed, Dr. Paul decided to pull on with his residency as far as he could, even though it took a huge toll on his already failing health. Notwithstanding the bleak future ahead, the couple decided to go ahead with having a baby.

Paul underwent several kinds of treatment ranging from targeted therapy to clinical trials, but after a short period of recovery, his health deteriorated. Eventually, he opted for comfort care and passed away in March 2015, surrounded by his loving family, his wife and his 8-month-old daughter. In his final months, he was singularly focused on completing this book.

It tugs at one's heartstrings to see a doctor coming in such close contact with his own mortality. Quoting Paul from his book “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.”

Dr. Paul Kalanithi confronted death, accepted it, and wrestled with it, as a physician and as a patient. His courage and pragmatic attitude even in the toughest of times are so inspiring. The beautiful narration of how, in a matter of weeks a doctor undergoes a role reversal from that of a life giver to that of a patient with a terminal illness is extremely heart-wrenching.

The last chapter of the book is written by his wife Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, after the passing of Dr. Paul Kalanithi. In my opinion, the book is a sublime piece of work and a must read for everyone. I am sure Dr. Kalanithi's story would inspire many patients and their caregivers, who are currently battling cancer, to make the most of whatever time and opportunity life gives them. I would specially recommend this book to all medical students and residents.

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There are no conflicts of interest.


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