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  • Writer's pictureAnderson Petergeorge

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi


Memoir by Paul Kalanithi, charting his journey from a literary scholar to a neurosurgeon, and finally, a patient grappling with stage IV lung cancer. The book reflects on the challenge of facing death and what makes life worth living. Through his narrative, Kalanithi offers a unique perspective on the fragility of life, the pursuit of meaning, and the interplay between life’s moments of profound joy and deep sorrow, leaving us with a lasting meditation on the ethics of mortality and the value of human experience.


  • The Kalanithi family despite being in a low educated district read books like 1984, the prince etc. to fill the gaps and get their children into top schools 

  • “Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world” 

  • Proactive parents - His mom joined the parents school board to demand AP classes to be added 

 A few rules to deliver news:

  • Detailed statistics are for research halls, not hospital rooms. Rather than saying “median survival is eleven months” or “you have a 95% chance to die in two years” it’s better to say “most patients live many months to a couple of years”.

  • “I came to believe that it is irresponsible to be more precise than you can be accurate” 

  • Cancer of the brain comes in two varieties: primary cancers, which are born in the brain, and metastases, which emigrate from somewhere else in the body, most commonly from the lungs 

  • Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible; in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight

  • Passion in your work is something we want to achieve. Dr. Kalanithi choosing to come back to neurosurgery despite the hours and time away from family because it truly gave him joy. This motivation helped him stick through physio and rehab 

  • Reconnecting with patients is what brought back the meaning of the work 

  • “The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help. What was I supposed to do with that day?”

That message is simple:

  • When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man's days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

  • You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” 

  • 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

  • “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. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn't about avoiding suffering.”

  • “The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time.”


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