Editor's note: Paul Kalanithi passed away on March 9, after this post was published.
Frankly, I didn’t quite know how to begin my conversation with Paul Kalanithi, MD. How do you talk to a 37–year-old man about his terminal illness and facing death? A conversation with someone so young who’s the father of a small child is supposed to be ebullient, not dark.
Kalanithi, a Stanford Medicine neurosurgeon and fellow with Stanford Neurosciences Institute, was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer in 2013. His illness is terminal. While he’s hopeful that a treatment may extend his life, there is no cure. He faces big questions and small ones. And he wonders: “How do I talk about myself - in the present, past or future tense? When someone says, 'See you next year,' will I?”
It all began with back pain, night sweats, weight loss and fever. His neurosurgical training prepared him for what he reviewed on his CT scan. Metastatic cancer. He responded well to his initial treatment plan, but a second round of chemotherapy last spring led to a number of complications and setbacks. Though he finished his residency he’s now taking time off to recover and regain his strength. He remains hopeful about a return to neurosurgery, yet he has to prepare for an end. He’s spoken with a palliative-care expert. He’s mulling the existential questions and trying to grapple with moving on while not giving up. He takes comfort in the words of the Irish novelist and playwright, Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I can go on.” They’ve become sort of his mantra.
Still, he knows he faces the inevitable and whether it’s a year, two years or five, terminal is the diagnosis. He’s trying to find a way to leave a trail of bread crumbs to his life so his child will know she was loved deeply when his presence is all but a shadow.
I spoke with him last November for a 1:2:1 podcast while he was in the throes of writing a book proposal. It was hard for me at points in our conversation to keep it together as our talk pried open my own grief over my brother's death to cancer at age 48.
Kalanithi also wrote a beautiful piece for Stanford Medicine magazine. It's magical. It's lyrical. It touches the heart. And it's clear, no matter what his health status, no matter what the outcome, he will live on.
Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health, For this doctor couple, the Super Bowl was about way more than football, A neurosurgeon's journey from doctor to cancer patient, Stop skipping dessert:” A Stanford neurosurgeon and cancer patient discusses facing terminal illness and No one wants to talk about dying but we all need to
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben