There is a genre of books about cancer that is summed up by Dr. Paul Kalanithi in an email to a friend in his best-selling book When Breath Becomes Air as “exhortations to gather rosebuds,” where the specter of impending death is ignored by the author in an effort to seize each day.
Within the first few pages of When Breath Becomes Air, an autobiographical account of a physician diagnosed with lung cancer, Dr. Kalanithi makes clear his book transcends this genre.
“The thing about lung cancer is that it’s not exotic,” Dr. Kalanithi writes. “It’s just tragic enough and just imaginable enough. [The reader] can get into these shoes, walk a bit, and say, ‘So that’s what it looks like from here … sooner or later I’ll be back here in my own shoes.’”
When Breath Becomes Air, which has been on The New York Times bestseller list since January, examines the interplay between life and death for patients with cancer. It has been selected for this year’s ASCO Book Club. The session, now in its third year at the ASCO Annual Meeting, will take place June 4 from 4:45 PM to 6:00 PM in S100bc.
Lucy Kalanithi, MD, FACP, wife of the late Dr. Paul Kalanithi and the author of the book’s epilogue, will be speaking during the session. Dr. Lucy Kalanithi is a clinical assistant professor of medicine with Stanford University. Teresa Gilewski, MD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, will chair the session and lead the discussion with Dr. Lucy Kalanithi.
Dr. Lucy Kalanithi and her late husband Dr. Paul Kalanithi.
Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a resident in neurological surgery with Stanford University before he died in March, 2015 at age 36 following his diagnosis with lung cancer. He graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine and received undergraduate degrees in both English literature and human biology from Stanford University.
When Breath Becomes Air intertwines an authoritative medical knowledge with a philosophical and moral understanding, allowing Dr. Paul Kalanithi to examine the role of death throughout his career in medicine and during his illness. Readers will be moved by his courage, his wisdom, his deep love for his family, his powerful commitment to his vocation, his sincere search to elucidate what makes life meaningful, and his genuine honesty.
“The response that Paul’s book is getting from the public, as well as the letters I am getting from patients and oncologists, shows that people are hungry to talk about mortality—and meaning—in a real way,” Dr. Lucy Kalanithi said.
When Breath Becomes Air examines concepts of specific interest to the medical professionals attending the ASCO Annual Meeting. After one traumatic incident, Dr. Paul Kalanithi questions how physicians should handle the mortal responsibly they assume for their patients while understanding the unfavorable outcomes that often result from treatment.
“The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgement will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients,” Dr. Paul Kalanithi writes. “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
He also discusses the paradox of a medical career, where great professional and financial rewards often await after years of residency and training. Yet during that time period, in which “the hours are long but the years are short” he writes, physicians are responsible for some of the most important moments in their patients’ lives.
“There is gratification to be found today, not just delayed gratification, if you’re present” Dr. Lucy Kalanithi said. “That’s not always easy to do. The meaning of what you’re doing, anywhere in your medical training, is huge. You’re having a huge impact on people’s lives.”
When Breath Becomes Air was selected for this year’s ASCO Book Club, Dr. Gilewski said, because of the book’s honest reflections on cancer diagnosis. Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s book, she said, can provide medical professionals a deeper insight into the patient experience, as well as insight into finding meaning in our personal lives and our work.
“This book eloquently reaffirms the value and importance of human interactions during the spectrum of illness and life,” Dr. Gilewski said. “It inspires us to try and understand each other and the overall meaning of life at a deeper level.”
The ASCO Book Club allows Meeting attendees a unique opportunity to discuss the value of human interactions in the practice of medicine. All are welcome to attend, even those who have not previously read the book.
A book signing will take place in the S100 lobby immediately following the conclusion of the session; books will be available to purchase onsite, or attendees may bring their own copy to be signed.