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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, reviewed by Alison Walker (of the Books & Company Book Club).

Paul Kalanithi was a 36 year old neurosurgeon on the verge of attaining everything he had worked so hard for over the last ten years, when he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He decided to write "When Breath Becomes Air" as a two-part memoir. The first part chronicles his life from childhood, through university, medical school and his neurosurgical training, while in the second part he bravely recounts his quest to come to terms with his mortality.

"When Breath Becomes Air" is a fascinating book. Paul was academically a very high achiever and it is interesting to read that he was determined not to become a doctor like his father. He said he knew medicine only by it's absence, because of the long hours his father worked, so instead he initially pursued studies in English literature and human biology. He became interested in the brain because it enabled us to give meaning to our lives, but he never lost his love of literature and in the second part of the book he often returns to literature to help him make sense of his diagnosis and the thought of death.

Paul is an engaging writer and tells many interesting stories about his life as a surgeon, but it is the second part of the book that will remain with me for a long time. Yes, his diagnosis was extremely tragic, but I liked reading about how he coped with becoming the doctor instead of the patient, how he faced his new reality head on, and how he and his wife decided whether or not to start a family during his treatment. Despite the subject matter, it is not a book that is without hope and it is one that I am very glad I took the time to read.

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