The Interview: Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Stanford neurosurgeon's personal story on life and death resonates with thousands

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon at Stanford Medical Center, is used to looking at CT scans of countless patients. What he's not used to, is looking at his own, but that's what he did 8 months ago. His CT scan showed that at age 36 and never having smoked a day in his life, he had stage four lung cancer. "When I first saw my scan, I thought I didn't have very long for this world," Dr. Kalanithi said.

As a neurosurgeon, he's acutely aware of dealing with life and death, but now he's dealing with his own life and death. A few weeks ago, Dr. Kalanithi wrote a powerful and personal essay, called "How long Have I Got Left," which was published in The New York Times. While he couldn't answer that question, Dr. Kalanithi had a clear idea of his next steps."Prepare to die. Cry. Tell my wife that she should remarry." Dr. Kalanithi wrote in his essay. When asked about those words he said, "That was my initial reaction, word for word. One of the differences about being a doctor and patient simultaneously was I could see the CT scan and I wasn't having anyone break the news to me."

Since his essay was published last month, Dr. Kalanithi has received thousands of emails from around the world. "There was a period of time I was getting literally a new email every two minutes, and I was trying to write back to them, and you'd see my little Gmail counter going up as I was typing," Dr. Kalanithi said. In one email, one person wrote, "Your mantra of 'I can't go on, I will go on' perfectly describes my daily choice. Thank you so very much for sharing your living experiences."

Another person emailed him writing, "While I don't face anything remotely mortal like you, as a deeply depressed person, your words hit far closer to home than I expected."

Eight months since his diagnosis, Dr. Kalanithi continues to 'go on.' He has responded well to treatment, and has returned to work and the operating room doing what he loves to do. "I'm fortunate enough that I've had such a good response to therapy that it seems very plausible that I'll be doing it for the next X number of years."

To watch the full interview with Dr. Kalanithi, click on the video player at the top of the page.

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