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"When Breath Becomes Air": The Heartbreak of Cancer

"In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message." quoted from the forward by Abraham Veghese in Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air"

I hesitated when my good friend who always loves the same books that I do suggested that I read Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air." She told me the short memoir dealt with Kalanithi's diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer when he was just about to complete his decade's worth of schooling and training and striving to become a neurosurgeon. At the end of his journey he became a patient rather than a doctor.

Why did I hesitate?

I've been marinating in sad cancer stories for years, and I didn't know if I wanted to read another where I already knew the outcome was not favorable. Cancer is a sad topic. Almost everyone knows someone or has been personally affected by some sort of cancer. My aunt died from breast cancer that came back in her lungs. My grandmother died from pancreatic cancer. My sister recently finished her treatments for tongue cancer (and no, she never smoked or did anything that would be considered cancer causing). My husband's boss just finished his treatments for a rare form of leukemia. My neighbor has cancer of the esophagus and is currently undergoing treatments. My other neighbor's sister has brain cancer and was just told the devastating news that there is nothing else that they can try and to get her affairs in order. My other neighbor's mother is undergoing treatment for throat cancer. And my other neighbor just found out that her dog has cancer in his gums.

Cancer sucks.

Sometimes the signs make sense. Behavior A caused Cancer B. Sometimes it's the sticky finger of fate that points at an unsuspecting victim who has trouble getting up stairs, or just feels like something is off in their bodies and all of a sudden it's treatment time.

The burning away with the radiation.

The poisoning of the body with chemotherapy.

The never ending cycle of other medicines that ward off the side effects caused by the burning and poisoning.

So, the prospect of reading the sad tale of a promising doctor whose life ended way too early at the age of 37 due to stage IV lung cancer wasn't super appealing. I read it anyway, and just as Abraham Veghese says in the forward about the dialogue that Kalanithi presents as he wrestles with his diagnosis, the impending birth of his child, what actually gives life purpose and meaning . . . it could be anyone's story who has ever suffered from cancer or watched a love one suffer.

Being a neurosurgeon who has been on the other end of devastating diagnoses his whole professional career, his perspective goes even deeper than those with no medical background. I know his book helped me see inside what was happening with my sister and the thoughts and feelings she must have been wrestling with as she underwent her complicated tongue surgery and subsequent 35 radiation treatments and 4 chemotherapy appointments.

The uniqueness of Kalanithi's story stems from his extraordinary writing ability and the way he presents his feelings with such unflinching honesty.

I cried. If you read this book, there is no way not to cry.

But it's worth it to read it.

Cancer doesn't suck any less because I read this book, but the insider's perspective has helped me make sense of the process of treatment, the trial and error that needs to occur, the devastation, the ability to let go, and the hopefulness of moving on.

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