I can’t remember where I first encountered this question “How would you spend the rest of your life if you find out that you only had six months to live?” but I surely remember that I did not have a clue as to how to answer this question. In fact, I envied those who could.
As a doctor, I deal a lot with patients who literally have six months to live. I tend to manage my patients in a holistic manner. I not only deal with their physical pain but also try explore their psychosocial issues. One of the questions that I’d ask them is what it is that they still want to accomplish. I do this because it allows me to choose the most suitable treatment for a particular patient. In the beginning of my practice, I thought that it was automatic that when one is faced with a potentially life threatening condition, he will automatically change everything in his life, start preparing and make the remaining more meaningful. I was wrong.
To my surprise, there have been countless times when patients did not know how to answer this question. Whenever I asked them, I often do not expect to be answered at that visit. I also do not ask the question on the first visit especially if I were the one who delivered the bad news. The patient needs to simmer for a while. I also need to have developed enough confidence in the patient to allow me to ask this question. But once I have developed that bond, I often ask the question to stimulate the patient to reflect on it. It is my way of helping the patient make the most of whatever is left, especially when I know that we have reached the limits of what medicine can do.
I gave myself excuses at first as to why the patient couldn’t answer. I said that the patient is still in shock or the patient needs more time or the patient is still in denial or the patient is not yet giving up hope. I then realized that the answer to this question will not come automatically. This question must not be asked when it is already there but must be asked long before it needs to be answered. It is a question that I need to start answering now. NOW, while I am still young. NOW while I still have a lot of time. NOW while everyone I love are still around. NOW while the clock is not yet ticking.
Answering the question “What would you do if you only had six months to live” is a task that I now use to govern how I live my life on a daily basis. I think there is a point in our lives when we ask about its meaning. The meaning of my life is the meaning that I choose to give it. It is something that I design not something that falls into my lap.
How will you answer this question?