As a cancer patient, myself, I approached this book with a measure of caution. I knew I would enjoy the clinical stuff because that’s always interesting. But I was scared about the inevitable ending. I expected it to strike a particularly raw nerve, and it did.
But before we get into that, I want to say this. Paul Kalanithi was an incredible human being. That he was able to eloquently pen such a truthful book in the last remaining days of his life is awe inspiring. He writes with conviction and honesty. You can tell by the way he talks about his patients that he had a warm, compassionate heart. And the way he speaks about his work makes it clear that he wasn’t just a good neurosurgeon, he was remarkable. He was a tour de force, destined for greatness, and cut down in his prime. The medical community suffered a great loss with his passing.
The first half of the book is about Kalanithi’s life leading up to his diagnosis. He talks about his childhood in Arizona, his experience as a student at Stanford, where he also met his wife, and his love for literature. You get to know him, and you like him.
The other half of the book details his diagnosis, his experience working as a neurosurgeon with cancer, and it also documents his deterioration. Personally, I related to this part of the book. So many of his feelings toward his disease, and how they connect to his future, felt so familiar. When I got my diagnosis earlier this year, I suddenly had no idea how to interact with the world. The future seemed bleak and blurry, and my ability to make decisions suffered. It was comforting to find that this Stanford neurosurgeon and I felt similarly about how our diagnoses impacted our lives.
Kalanithi’s wife finishes writing the book for him because, as we all predicted, he didn’t live long enough to complete it himself. With the hope of having another five years of life, he passed away just eight months later.
I bawled like a baby. Getting through those last few chapters was very difficult. But I’m glad I did it. I think it was an important part of my own process. Sometimes you just have to jump into something you know will hurt and give it a big bear hug. Let the painful bits overwhelm you now so they won’t later. Give yourself permission to cry it out and start working through the emotions.
I love that books can open these kinds of floodgates for us. It’s healthy and it’s important. I encourage you to be vulnerable with literature. You’d be amazed by what you can discover about yourself.