When Breath Becomes Air Summary,Characters,Themes & Synopsis

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TitleWhen Breath Becomes Air
AuthorPaul Kalanithi
Publication DateJanuary 12, 2016
No. of Pages256 pages
GenreMemoir, Autobiography
Main ThemesMortality, Identity, Meaning of Life, Medicine
SettingPrimarily set in various hospitals
including Stanford University Medical Center.
Writing StyleReflective, Philosophical


The main characters of the book “When Breath Becomes Air” are:

  1. Paul Kalanithi – The author and main character of the memoir. He is a talented neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
  2. Lucy Kalanithi – Paul’s wife and a strong presence throughout the memoir. She is also a physician and plays a significant role in supporting Paul through his illness and helping him find purpose in his final days.
  3. Paul’s Family – His parents and siblings, who provide insights into his upbringing, values and cultural background.
  4. Fellow Medical Professionals – Various colleagues and mentors from Paul’s medical career, including his experiences as a neurosurgery resident and his interactions with patients.
  5. Patients – The book includes stories of some of Paul’s patients, illustrating the challenges and ethical dilemmas that arise in the field of medicine.
  6. Friends and Peers – Paul’s circle of friends and fellow medical professionals who offer him support, insights and moments of connection.
  7. Authors and Philosophers – Paul references several literary figures and philosophical ideas throughout the book, reflecting his own contemplation of life and mortality.


The themes of the book “When Breath Becomes Air” are:

  1. Life and Death – The book explores what it means to live fully and confront the reality of mortality.
  2. Identity and Purpose – Paul grapples with his changing identity as a doctor turned patient and searches for purpose amid life’s uncertainties.
  3. Medical Ethics – The book delves into the ethical dilemmas doctors face when treating patients and the importance of understanding a patient’s perspective.
  4. Legacy and Meaning – Paul reflects on leaving a meaningful legacy, focusing on the impact he can make despite the limited time he has left.
  5. Family and Relationships – The book highlights the importance of family and the ways in which illness can affect relationships.
  6. Human Resilience – Paul’s journey showcases human strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
  7. Literature and Philosophy – The book weaves in references to literature and philosophy, showing how these disciplines can help us make sense of life’s complexities.
  8. Mind-Body Connection– Paul examines the interplay between the mind and body, especially when dealing with illness.
  9. Honesty and Communication – The book emphasizes the value of honest communication between doctors and patients in navigating difficult medical situations.
  10. Acceptance and Transformation – The story highlights the process of accepting one’s circumstances and finding transformation through difficult experiences.


“When Breath Becomes Air” is a memoir written by Paul Kalanithi, a doctor who becomes a patient. He tells his own story. He studies hard to become a brain surgeon and helps sick people.

But then, he gets sick himself with cancer. He learns he doesn’t have much time left. He writes about his life, his illness, and what it’s like to face death. The book talks about finding meaning in life even when facing death.

It’s a sad but also inspiring story about how to live fully, even in difficult times.

Watch Full Book Summary & Analysis of “When Breath Becomes Air” on YouTube


Paul Kalanithi was a cancer patient who worked as a neurosurgeon. When Breath Becomes, Air is the title of his memoir on his experiences. It chronicles his life from boyhood to death, interspersed with deep philosophical thinking and beautiful prose. His meditations blend professional skill with patient experience, resulting in a book conveying profound meaning regarding life and death.

Kalanithi grew raised in Arizona, where he was deeply connected with nature. He enjoyed reading and understood that studying literature as well as biology would be beneficial to him. While pursuing a master’s degree in English literature, Kalanithi decided to pursue a career in medicine instead of becoming a writer.

Some of the author’s most memorable medical school recollections include examining cadavers. At that time, he recognized that practicing medicine had extraordinary and banal sides. He picked neurosurgery as his specialty.

Paul marries Lucy, his girlfriend. They both relocated to California for their residency. Paul works hard at Stanford, but he assumes greater responsibilities as time passes. He understands that every encounter with patients is crucial and might be the difference between their getting well or not. As the years pass, he obtains expertise in numerous disciplines of medicine, preparing him for his ideal position at the end of his residency.

They were on the verge of divorce when Paul got diagnosed with cancer.

While dealing with his sickness, Paul attempts to complete his residency. He pushes himself to keep operating in the OR until he needs to start cancer treatment. Paul must choose between two therapies, one of which will allow him to continue practicing neurosurgery. He notices how his actions reflect the destiny of his patients and wonders what makes life meaningful.

Paul does not want to live the rest of his life trying to escape melancholy. He wishes to work within his constraints to discover what gives him significance. Paul & Lucy decide to conceive a child to find a greater purpose.

A brief time of health makes him believe he is cancer-free, but a CT scan indicates that the disease has returned. He starts chemotherapy and suffers from significant side effects. He no longer views recovery as possible and must reconsider his life without therapy.

As a result, he opted to emphasize his writing above his career as a neurosurgeon. If he had another forty years, he would have spent half of it on medicine and half writing.

When his daughter Cady is born, Paul hurries to the hospital. He arrives barely in time and spends eight months with her in the hospital. Paul is excited during this time and wants his kid to know that she has made him happiest than he has ever been.

When Lucy gave birth to Cady, Paul’s health began to deteriorate. He died eight months later, and his family penned the book’s epilogue in which they reflected on their final months with him. They chose to commemorate his life by publishing this book, which he worked on while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Paul hoped that others would benefit from his experience.

About the Author-Paul Kalanithi

Full NamePaul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi
Birth DateApril 1, 1977
Death DateMarch 9, 2015
OccupationNeurosurgeon, Writer
Education– Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Human Biology from Stanford University
– Master’s degree in English Literature from Stanford University
– Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) from Yale School of Medicine
Notable Work“When Breath Becomes Air” (Memoir)
Medical SpecializationNeurosurgery
Literary StyleReflective, philosophical, and deeply introspective
Significant ThemeExploring the intersection of life, death, and the human experience
LegacyPosthumously published memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” became a bestseller and touched many readers around the world
Other InterestsLiterature, philosophy, ethics

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