Book review: When Breath Becomes Air

Editor of Cancer Nursing Practice, Lisa Berry reviews When Breath Becomes Air.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi

The Bodley Head

£12.99 | 256pp

ISBN: 9781847923677 hardback

Paul Kalanithi died from lung cancer in March 2015, aged 37, while working on this memoir.

The book is largely a reflection on one question: what makes life meaningful and virtuous? Drawing often on the literature he so loved, Kalanithi explores possible answers at each stage of his life: as a medical student, promising neurosurgeon, patient and new father.


Beautifully written, in a calm, matter-of-fact style, the author allows for no self-pity. There is a spiritual quality to his compassionate musings on life and death.

Healthcare professionals and civilians alike should find much that resonates here. I marked a number of sections, but for this review perhaps the following is most appropriate.

Recalling a young patient who was more terrified than most at the idea of brain surgery, Kalanithi opts not to launch into a ‘detached spiel’ detailing risks and complications, but to discuss the options with the patient and her family. She chooses surgery and it is successful: ‘I had met her in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved.’

Reviewed by Lisa Berry, editor, Cancer Nursing Practice

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