Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

By Margaret Walker – Blog Editor

I recently finished the impactful book “When Breath Becomes Air,” a memoir written by final-year neurosurgical resident, Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The book details his journey from diagnosis to death; by its very nature, the book is heavy. Kalanithi discusses the complex interactions between spirituality, poetry, life, death, and living. The writing is incredibly personal and forces the reader to confront their own feelings on mortality. While the writing may be slightly disorganized and follow a very loose structure, it reads like the stream of consciousness of someone going through one of life’s defining experiences.

I encourage anyone interested in the process of coming to terms with one’s eventual demise to at least read part of the book. As a society, we are not good at shepherding people to the “next stage.” In the medical and public health field, we often see death as a failure instead of the eventual event for which our bodies were made.


This book has ties to Atule Gawenda’s “Being Mortal.” Gawenda provides a great overview of the business of the end-of-life care and the medical profession’s discomfort with the idea of a healthy death. Both of these books argue for very honest and open conversations between patients and providers as well as for compassionate palliative care specialists. Palliative care should not be viewed as the healthcare system “giving up.” Rather it is the opportunity to help people verbalize their goals: see a child born, graduate, marry, etc. It is the responsibility of the physician to understand what makes life worth living for a person and strive to provide those opportunities. For Paul Kalanithi, it was to finish residency, finish this book, and see his daughter born; all of which he accomplished.

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About NPHR Blog (339 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

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