Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
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When Breath Becomes Air: A Review

by Sandra Manley, MSW, LSW

Friends and colleagues are familiar with my insatiable love of reading. Reading allows for an escape, to learn more about lands I’ve never visited, people I’ve never met. I’ve been asked if there are any books or genres I do not read, and for the longest time I never had an answer. Since working in oncology, in an effort to strengthen my work/life boundaries, I have come to answer, “Well, I don’t read books about cancer.”

Until I came upon a writer who made me break my own rules.

You may have heard about Dr. Paul Kalanithi after reading one of his essays. You may have read about him on a Lung Cancer advocacy website. Or, this may be the first time you’ve ever read his name. No matter what category you’re in, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of his posthumously published book, When Breath Becomes Air, coming out Tuesday, January 12 (Random House)*.

Dr. Kalanithi studied both biology and literature at Stanford University (at the undergraduate and graduate levels, respectively). When it came time to make a decision on how he wanted to apply his interests, he decided that medicine was the best route.

On the cusp of completing his training in Neurological Surgery, Dr. Kalanithi received a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer. Kalanithi’s training denied him any ignorance of knowing what his symptoms meant, how his CT scans read. Cancer, for people who work in oncology, comes with these unavoidable truths, and he faces his diagnosis with tremendous bravery and mindfulness.

Over one weekend away from home, he is forced to contemplate how to tell his family, before any official visit with an oncologist.  What follows is a man coming to terms with mortality, and his strong desire to leave a legacy for his wife and daughter. Dr. Kalanithi passed away March 9, 2015.

This book is simply exquisite. Just as it is a privilege to listen to the stories of my patient’s struggles and victories, so too was it a privilege to read Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir. Dr. Kalanithi teaches us that in learning about mortality and death, we inevitably must learn about life and joy.

Sandra Manley, MSW, LSW, is an oncology social worker and part of the Supportive Oncology Team at the Lurie Cancer Center.  She is also an avid reader who loves sharing her passion for books.

Other Articles by Dr. Kalanithi:

*An Advanced Reader’s Copy was provided through NetGalley.

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