Cancer, Where Is Your Sting?

A neurosurgeon discovers hope and healing in the face of a terminal diagnosis.
Cancer, Where Is Your Sting?
Image: Jake Melara / Unsplash

Paul Kalanithi, a Stanford neurosurgeon, had devoted his life to a vision of helping the dying. But just as he was finishing his residency, terminal illness paid a personal visit.

Kalanithi died in March 2015, almost a year before the release of his extraordinary memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. The book (a No. 1 New York Times bestseller) tells the story of his incurable diagnosis, and the way he found his life reinvigorated in the shadow of death. And even though many readers miss this theme, the story shows how he and his wife, Lucy, both doctors, grew to understand Christianity’s promise of new life in profound ways.

Death’s Ambassador

As a reader, I have an unfortunate kinship with Kalanithi. I was diagnosed with an incurable cancer less than a year before he received his medical “death sentence.” I was 39; he was 35. Like Paul and Lucy, my wife and I found our lives in a fog. A sinister arithmetic shattered our hopes and plans for the decades ahead: the disease could bring death within months, or years, or decades. We were told to live one day at a time. Kalanithi received the same advice, but found it sorely inadequate. He cuts through this cliché with a surgeon’s scalpel:

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I'd spend time with family. Tell me one year, I'd write a book. Give me ten years, I'd get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn't help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

In prose that verges on poetic, Kalanithi exposes the chasm between doctor and patient, one he had never recognized during years of carefully treating dozens of dying patients. He ...

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