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When a successful doctor stared at cancer death, here’s what he chose to do

A doctor’s account of life after being diagnosed with cancer

health and fitness Updated: Dec 18, 2016 12:22 IST
Sanchita Sharma
cancer

Dr Paul Kalanithi

US-based Indian-American Paul Kalanithi was 15 months away from completing his training as a neurosurgeon at age 36 when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. The cancer was inoperable, he was going to die.

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir that begins with him examining his own CT scan with his wife Lucy, also a doctor.

“I had earned the respect of my seniors, won prestigious national awards, and was fielding job offers from several major universities... I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land,” he writes in his memoir, which he began writing after his diagnosis.

Within seconds, the vision dissipated and from a doctor saving lives, he becomes a patient facing death.

“As a doctor, I knew not to declare ‘Cancer is a battle I’m going to win!’ or ask, ‘Why me?’ (Answer: why NOT me?),” he writes.

He died in March 2015 before he could finish his book. Ten months later, When Breath Becomes Air hit the stands and has stayed on the New York Times bestseller list all year.

Kalanithi’s memoir chronicles what he went through when confronted with death and how it taught him to be fully alive, including the decision to have a child knowing he would not be there to watch her grow up.

Book Details
  • When Breath Becomes Air , By Paul Kalanithi, Hardcover Rs 360; Kindle Rs 156

His degrees in human biology, English Literature, and history and philosophy of science and medicine from Cambridge and Stanford Universities before he graduated from Yale School of Medicine, helped him articulate his thoughts on living, dying and accepting death.

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

When his father tells him he would beat cancer, he reflects; “How often had I heard a patient’s family member make similar declarations? I never knew what to say to them then, and I didn’t know what to say to my father now.”

The book courses through his life as a student excited about where a career as a neurosurgeon would take him, to becoming a patient with a terminal illness, from being a husband in a rocky marriage struggling to balance work and a relationship, to being a new father knowing that saying goodbye to his little daughter would be the hardest thing he would ever do.

He does it eloquently. “That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when 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.”