I rarely sit and read books nowadays. I read many scientific papers, and textbooks, but for general reading, I tend to use Audible to listen to books as I’m driving or walking. But yesterday I sat down and read Paul Kalanithi’s book “When breath becomes air” in one sitting. A friend had lent me her copy the previous day and having read some of Paul’s writing in the newspaper, I wanted to read more. And I’m so glad I did.
It is a beautiful book. It is a short memoir written after Paul, a neurosurgeon, 36 years old, is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.
The writing is lovely. The author had studied literature (among many other things!) before moving into medicine and it is evident not only in the quotes and references given but in his own style of writing. An beautiful example is a paragraph he wrote to his baby daughter:
“When you come to one of the many moments in your life where you must give an account of yourself, ……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.”
The book is about finding meaning and joy in life during a time of great uncertainty. Before his diagnosis, he had put all his focus into his studies and residency and was in many ways, putting parts of his life on hold until he finished his residency. But months before residency is finished – he is faced with the prospect of a life cut short. The author moves from physician/scientist to patient. His identity changes – he questions what tense of verb he should use to describe himself as a neurosurgeon…..does he say he is a neurosurgeon, was a neurosurgeon, or had been a neurosurgeon? Will he ever do surgery again? Should he look at something else instead?
And he is trying to answer all these questions when he doesn’t know how strong he will feel tomorrow let alone in a couple of months — will he be able to even get out of bed, never mind do brain surgery requiring standing and concentration for 8+hours?
His questions about moving forward and still finding meaning and joy are what most cancer patients go through. How do you deal with ‘scanxiety’ every time you go for another scan to see if the tumor has changed? How do you take all that uncertainty and still move forward to find love, joy and meaning in life? They are questions that we need to spend time considering, and find our own answers.
And Paul does find his way. And his time is filled with love and joy – and of course, many difficult times too. Its a lovely read. I come away feeling that his patients benefited from him as physician, and I have benefited from him by reading this book. Touching, moving, inspiring.