Like many of us, I had watched the novelist Jackie Collins on television just a couple of weeks ago, so the news of her death recently came as a shock. She'd seemed so vibrant and glamorous, yet she was close to the end of her fight with breast cancer that had first been diagnosed six-and-a-half years ago. In one of her last interviews, on September 14, she said that she had told few people about her diagnosis other than her three daughters, and did not regret her decision.
"I did it my way, as Frank Sinatra would say," she said. "I've written five books since the diagnosis, I've lived my life, I've travelled all over the world, I have not turned down book tours and no-one has ever known until now when I feel I should come out with it."
It is often people like Jackie Collins who actually teach us how to live. Whether it is her, or one of my patients, here are five of the most important lessons that I have learned:
- Maintain gratitude in spite of challenges. Despite sometimes being almost immobile, many of my patients towards the end of their lives, are still thankful for every day because they are acutely aware that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Each small task is a victory to be celebrated as a blessing.
- Memento mori. We often forget, especially when we are young, that we are mortal. The truth is that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. The time to do the things we want to do, say the things we want to say, and achieve our goals is now. Every moment we lose to doubt or insecurity is a moment we will never get back.
- It is as our mind wills it. Most of my patients see themselves as people living with a potentially life-threatening disease, rather than as people dying from it. Illness, while certainly limiting, does not stop them from living their life.
- Sometimes, the battle chooses us. Too often, we give up without a struggle and accept what comes our way. But whatever life throws at us, we have to stand up and fight back. A useful mantra for all of us is, "Make sure you are the one who throws the last punch before the fight is over."
- There is joy in each and every day. We spend so much time focusing on what we want but don't have - that which we feel we deserve but has somehow been denied us. Ultimately, life is what we make it and it's up to us to seek out the joy in it.
It sounds like Jackie Collins followed these lessons, as do many of my patients. "I refuse to mourn people, because everybody dies," she said recently. "Death and taxes, you can't avoid either."