A Project Manager’s Game Plan for Dealing with Incurable Cancer

Segment Fourteen – Baby-stepping your way through Stage Four

Today was a workout.  A meeting where I actually had to think.  Amending and rewriting a slide deck for an upcoming presentation. Doing the invoice dance with a new process. Spending an hour on the phone with the Intuit® help desk.  Digging in the yard to create another ten square feet where grass might grow.  Dining out with an intimate group of eleven. 


I sometimes wonder how I survive those days.  And for a while, I didn’t survive.  As I reflect back on the early days right after my diagnosis, a day like today would have been downright impossible.  When I was first diagnosed, a big day was the day that I could make it down the driveway to grab the mail.  I would then require a bio-break and a nap upon returning to the house.  Now?  I have days like today. 

While I’m officially tapped out after today, when I look at the beginning of this journey, I marvel.  Yes, there were times before the cancer when today would have been “light” or “ordinary”, but now, it’s a day of dramatic accomplishment. 

I’d like to take a moment to thank the doctors, oncologists, nurses, phlebotomists, my family, my wife, my dog, my church family… They all took me one more step down the road from the first days of the diagnosis to today. 

If you’ve never seen the movie, What About Bob?, please put a viewing on your to-do list.  Bob (Bill Murray) is a hyper-neurotic human being who is incapable of what you and I would consider ordinary doings.  He can barely get out of his apartment, let alone function in society.  (Hmmmm….  Sounds a little like life right after an uncurable cancer diagnosis).  But he’s reading a book (ostensibly written by Richard Dreyfus’ character) titled “Baby Steps.”  He’s baby-stepping down the hall.  He’s baby-stepping down the stairs. 

Bob takes all of his day-to-day functions and breaks them down into manageable chunks.

HEY!  Wait a minute!  That sounds like project management 101. 

It is.  As I have managed the Stage Four project for the past two years, I’ve learned that baby-stepping is a critical notion if you’re going to have good days on a regular basis. At first, I was baby-stepping just to get to the mailbox at the end of the driveway.  That was a big deal.  Now, I am baby-stepping my way through tearing out moss and planting grass (20 square feet at a time) to reclaim my backyard.  20 square feet is not a lot of yard.  But when you do it every dry day for a few weeks, the brown, hardpacked moss starts looking a little less formidable.

Lesson Learned: I spent about four months of my life in the 1980’s working step-by-step through the tedious process of becoming an air traffic control specialist. (It was right after the PATCO strike, where Ronald Reagan fired over 3,000 specialists, and 3,000 great government jobs were suddenly available).  Every step in the process was an administrative headache.  But I never felt I had to do all of the steps at once.  I only had to do the next step.  By following the process over the course of months, I eventually made it all the way through.  And I was hired.  (Author’s note: Beware what you wish for.  I was hired, quit my job in radio in New Hampshire, and moved back to Ohio to head out to training in Oklahoma.  The day I was flying out for training, I received the only telegram I ever got in my life.  “Do not report to the Academy for training,” it read.  “You have been medically disqualified due to deficient non-visual acuity.”  Translation?  My eyes were too bad to direct and land planes.  Still, I made it through the entire process one baby step at a time.

Project management teaches a profound gospel that virtually anything can be accomplished in manageable chunks.  The operative word is manageable.  That’s a real key to project management and to the baby-stepping process.  How much can you actually manage?

Think of your next undertaking like a drive.  When I was introduced to the advanced radiation therapy I was to receive from Dr. Michael Morris in Baltimore (Glen Burnie), it was unveiled as a four-to-six-month experience involving entire weeks away from home.  I almost bailed on the idea as it seemed too daunting. When Dr. Morris boiled it down to the explanation of a single visit, I could handle it.  Manageable chunks.  When I learned I’d be staying at a hotel, rather than a hospital, I had enough experience with hotels (as a road warrior for over two decades) that it seemed even less intimidating. I knew I could make it through a week at a hotel with intermittent stops at a treatment center, a hospital and a diagnostic facility.  Baby steps.

Lesson Learned: Figure out how much you can manage.  You can manage a lot more of familiar experiences than you can the unknown.  With the familiar, the baby steps can be a little longer and a little more like strides.  With the unknown and uncertain, the baby steps inherently should be smaller.  Just because you’re only moving an inch doesn’t mean you’re not moving enough. Every bit of progress requires a little patience, and a willingness to acknowledge there’s another baby step around the corner.

We all have what are called “stretch goals” in life.  My current personal stretch goal for my life is to live well up until I’m 80.  I want to die with cancer, rather than from cancer.  80 is the far end of my life expectancy with my current diagnosis.  I imagine I’ll change my tune on my 79th birthday.  But I have no desire to sit around waiting to survive until 80.  My plan is to try to continue my life and to do things that are outside my current imagination.  In the course of my life, I never thought I would:

  • Marry the majorette who would become a CPA
  • Appear on Wheel of Fortune
  • Run a major market radio news department
  • Switch careers and then open my own consultancy
  • Have two sons I couldn’t be prouder of
  • Work with a dozen different Fortune 500 companies
  • Sing the national anthem to open a baseball game
  • Get bleeding edge radiation therapy

Each one of those was a project.  Those of you with kids know that having children is perhaps the most rewarding and formidable on the list. Once you decide you’re going down any road—any road at all—you can expect there will be speed bumps on the path there.  With our sons, there were expenses, accidents, emergency vehicles, tears and laughter along the way (In some cases, all at once). As you look through your own life’s accomplishments (and survivals), you will often shake your head in disbelief at what has gone by.  Like a good project manager, you should catalog the baby steps it took to get there. 

(Wreaths tossed into the waters above the site of the sinking on the Titanic disaster centenary, April 15, 2012)

Lesson Learned: Creating a personal project history is not something that inherently involves a lengthy narrative. I’ve been getting my one-a-day Microsoft® One Drive history in my e-mail, providing me a look at all of the pictures from years gone by for that particular day.  As I write this, I’m coming to the end of a string of photos from 2012, when my wife and her sister went on the Titanic Centenary Memorial Cruise, arriving at the site of the sinking and playing host to the official memorial service. The photos from the event create a sense of history from the category of “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  The lesson?  If you don’t have a propensity for writing, you do have a phone.  Take pictures of the small accomplishments.   I took dozens of photos at Fort McHenry in Baltimore after I survived my first radiation therapy.  Every time I look at them, I’m reminded how amazing it was to still be able to function when I was radioactively “hot.”

Looking back?  Look at the baby steps that got you there.  Looking ahead? Look at the baby steps taking you where you want to go. And even if you never arrive at the destination, marvel at the progress you made in closing the gap between here and there. I never worked in an air traffic control center. But I had the chops to get there.

Next up?  Who the heck are you? A look at our tendencies for self-examination and why we need to take the analysis with a grain of salt. 

If you want to review the previous elements of this e-book or blog, they’re all posted at www.carlpritchard.com/blog

If you have insights you’d like to share or comments or conversations, my e-mail is the best way to reach me at carl@carlpritchard.com.  I’ll always get back to you within 24 hours.  Always.  And if you think I missed the mark?  Check your spam folder.  Thanks for joining me on this journey.