10/11/2011 02:23 EDT | Updated 12/11/2011 05:12 EST

Renowned oncologist Dr. Robert Buckman dies on flight to Toronto

TORONTO - Colleagues are remembering Toronto oncologist, author and media personality Dr. Robert Buckman as a caring individual with "an exquisite sense of humour."

Buckman died on the weekend at age 63 on a flight from his native England to Toronto.

Dr. Mary Gospodarowicz, medical director of the Princess Margaret cancer program at the University Health Network, said she received the news from Buckman's wife, Dr. Patricia Shaw, a pathologist at the hospital.

"She basically emailed us saying that he was on the flight back from London, and he died on the plane," Gospodarowicz said.

Reports indicated that he died in his sleep.

Buckman taught at the University of Toronto's medical faculty and was the author of at least 14 books, including "I Don't Know What to Say — How to Help and Support Someone Who is Dying," and "How to Break Bad News," a medical textbook for health professionals.

"Magic or Medicine," his television series about complementary medicine, won a Gemini award.

In his 2006 book "Cancer is a Word, Not a Sentence," his introduction states, "If you're reading this book, you're probably reeling ... this book is going to do one specific thing for you: it's going to help you get your balance back. It will do that by offering a steady hand that guides you and gives you a sense of direction."

Gospodarowicz said Buckman was renowned internationally, gave keynote addresses on communicating with patients, and had a cross appointment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, one of the top cancer centres in the world.

"He was great fun. He had an exquisite sense of humour," she said.

The first time they met was at a cancer meeting abroad where they were at the same table at dinner, "and I didn't know him, and I must admit the whole table was in stitches all evening. He was so funny," Gospodarowicz recalled.

"But underneath this persona of a great sense of humour, he was always a very caring person, right from the beginning. He was always concerned about the patient, and the patient needs and the patient's perception, and he did it in a very academic way, in doing actually research into patient needs and patient support."

She said that he had faced a number of health challenges of his own over the years, but it never stopped him from doing what he wanted to do.

A Quill and Quire article published in 2000 noted that Buckman produced dozens of humorous medical information videos with Monty Python's John Cleese, whom he met while performing comedy with Cambridge University’s Footlights Revue.

Buckman qualified as a physician from Cambridge University in 1972 and completed his training in medical oncology at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, according to his website. He emigrated to Toronto in 1985. Prior to joining Princess Margaret Hospital, he was at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Dr. Kathy Pritchard, division director of medical oncology at U of T, and an oncologist at Sunnybrook, said Buckman was a wonderful colleague.

"He really taught a whole generation of students and oncologists about communication and breaking bad news," she said.

"He was always a great communicator to the public, to patients, to donors, to everyone ... He was very amusing and would put things across in a way that was both amusing and retainable."

Buckman had issues with his health at times, she noted.

"He really conquered those issues, and I always admired the way he carried on with a full schedule and a full life, when I think he'd had a previous very serious illness, so we're all going to miss him."

Gospodarowicz said he was very selfless and never complained about working too hard.

"He was an eternal optimist and while being very realistic, he did make people feel better — not only his patients, but also his colleagues and his peers."

Buckman is survived by his wife and four children.