Steve Jobs deserves every accolade he's getting today as an inventor and businessman, but for my money, his single best day of work had nothing to do with iPads or Buzz Lightyear. It was on a Sunday in June 2005 when he helped change my life, and maybe the lives of millions of others.   

Jobs and I had cancer, the first time, at the same time. He disclosed his illness in August 2004, a few weeks before I learned that the stomach ache that kept me awake throughout the drama-packed week of the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) IPO that month was an ulcer sitting on top of a stomach tumor that had about a 70% chance of killing me.

Not surprisingly, Jobs figured out the lessons of cancer faster than I did, faster than most people do, and explained them in his brilliant Stanford University commencent speech. He had three stories, he told the kids -- one about dropping out of college, one about getting fired, and the third about facing death. And they all basically had the same point: Find something you're passionate about, and do it without apology. If you find yourself off course, go back to your true north; if you think hard enough and honestly enough, you know what that is, and you eschew self-pity in all its forms. And if you can get somewhere close to what you have in your head, some version of both excellence and joy will come to you, and from you.

For millions of people, what Steve Jobs learned from facing death can give meaning to our second chance at life. In what Raymond Carver called the "gravy" time you sometimes get to live after a diagnosis that should kill you, Jobs invented both the iPhone and the iPad for Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), making it the most valuable company in the world, surpassing its longtime frenemy Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT). We can all have our version of that, and for the non-geniuses among us, our meager substitutes are plenty. For me, it was some especially consequential reporting I'm really proud of, and family things that are private. For my sister, whose diagnosis came a few months after mine and who died this April, it included getting married and raising the money for a school in rural Haiti, where construction is supposed to begin next month. We can all do that, or something like it.  We don't have to wait to get sick first, either.

For that little bit of teaching, even more than my iPad, I'll remember Steve Jobs.  More than 11 million people in the U.S. live with cancer at any one time, and more than half a million die from it each year. It's not as many as the 40 million iPads sold last year, but for those of us who pay attention and integrate Jobs' message into the way we live now, it can be more useful than any gadget and mean much, much more. I am here, literally and figuratively, to tell you that.

Tim Mullaney doesn't own any stocks mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Microsoft, Google, and Apple and creating bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.