When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Book: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi Read Free Book Online
Authors: Paul Kalanithi
consists in speaking reassuringly, until your words connect and the patient awakens.

    Cancer of the brain comes in two varieties: primary cancers, which are born in the brain, and metastases, which emigrate from somewhere else in the body, most commonly from the lungs. Surgery does not cure the disease, but it does prolong life; for most people, cancer in the brain suggests death within a year, maybe two. Mrs. Lee was in her late fifties, with pale green eyes, and had transferred to my service two days earlier from a hospital near her home, a hundred miles away. Her husband, his plaid shirt tucked into crisp jeans, stood by her bedside, fidgeting with his wedding ring. I introduced myself and sat down, and she told me her story: For the past few days, she had felt a tingling in her right hand, and then she’d begun to lose control of it, until she could no longer button her blouse. She’d gone to her local ER, fearing she was having a stroke. An MRI was obtained there, and she was sent here.

    “Did anyone tell you what the MRI showed?” I asked.
    “No.” The buck had been passed, as it often was with difficult news. Oftentimes, we’d have a spat with the oncologist over whose job it was to break the news. How many times had I done the same? Well, I figured, it can stop here.
    “Okay,” I said. “We have a lot to talk about. If you don’t mind, can you tell me what you understand is happening? It’s always helpful for me to hear, to make sure I don’t leave anything unanswered.”
    “Well, I thought I was having a stroke, but I guess…I’m not?”
    “That’s right. You aren’t having a stroke.” I paused. I could see the vastness of the chasm between the life she’d had last week and the one she was about to enter. She and her husband didn’t seem ready to hear brain cancer —is anyone?—so I began a couple steps back. “The MRI shows a mass in your brain, which is causing your symptoms.”

    Silence.
    “Do you want to see the MRI?”
    “Yes.”
    I brought up the images on the bedside computer, pointing out her nose, eyes, and ears to orient her. Then I scrolled up to the tumor, a lumpy white ring surrounding a black necrotic core.
    “What’s that?” she asked.
    Could be anything. Maybe an infection. We won’t know till after surgery.
    My inclination to dodge the question still persisted, to let their obvious worries float in their heads, unpinned.
    “We can’t be sure until after surgery,” I began, “but it looks very much like a brain tumor.”
    “Is it cancer?”
    “Again, we won’t know for certain until it is removed and examined by our pathologists, but, if I had to guess, I would say yes.”

    Based on the scan, there was no doubt in my mind that this was glioblastoma—an aggressive brain cancer, the worst kind. Yet I proceeded softly, taking my cues from Mrs. Lee and her husband. Having introduced the possibility of brain cancer, I doubted they would recall much else. A tureen of tragedy was best allotted by the spoonful. Only a few patients demanded the whole at once; most needed time to digest. They didn’t ask about prognosis—unlike in trauma, where you have only about ten minutes to explain and make a major decision, here I could let things settle. I discussed in detail what to expect over the next couple of days: what the surgery entailed; how we’d shave only a small strip of her hair to keep it cosmetically appealing; how her arm would likely get a little weaker afterward but then stronger again; that if all went well, she’d be out of the hospital in three days; that this was just the first step in a marathon; that getting rest was important; and that I didn’t expect them to retain anything I had just said and we’d go over everything again.

    After surgery, we talked again, this time discussing chemo, radiation, and prognosis. By this point, I had learned a couple of basic rules. First, detailed statistics are for research halls, not hospital rooms. The standard

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