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

The Introduction and first eight segments to this multi-segment blog/e-book can be found at the links at the bottom of this article. 

Segment Nine – Transition

For many, when any work nears conclusion, then they arrive.  They weren’t there at the beginning, weren’t there for any of the trials and tribulations, and weren’t there to build support.  But as the project hits a major transition, they become participants.

I count myself blessed thus far that in my treatments, this description doesn’t fall to any of my friends.  Medically, however, there are those who deposit themselves squarely in that category.  They’re easy to spot.  They believe they have a better understanding of what’s transpired even though they weren’t there.  They believe that if they had been involved sooner, they would have seen things that no-one else has seen.  Oddly enough, this is often resolved through an effective paper trail.

The Paperwork

In most of our lives, we don’t think about the paper trail.  The only person I ever knew who took it seriously was an instructor named Vern Edwards.  Vern was a fastidious note-taker.  Every conversation, every phone call was accompanied by his little black book. If you wanted to argue with Vern, you needed to be prepared to handle the truth.  Whatever had been said was remembered.  If you tell him he promised you something for Wednesday, he’d refer to his little black book and tell you that you agreed on delivery for Friday.  And you’d know he was right. 

As you go through your life and your projects, put your pen to work.  Make notes.  Write stories.  Capture history.  I don’t regret my documentary evidence…ever.  Sooner or later, it redounds to my benefit.

For the Stage Four project, I’ve used my list of medications dozens of times.  I’ve catalogued certain lab work outcomes to limit discussions that otherwise would be based on “best guess.”  I’ve saved every e-mail (and committed it to a “Health” subdirectory) to ensure we don’t have to relive any already-conducted conversations.  And let someone know where those files are retained.

Lesson Learned: Among the many jobs I’ve held in my life, I spent a little over a year as a proposal manager.  When I first took over the effort, I asked my predecessor where all the documentation was kept.  She pointed toward two file cabinets (dating myself much?) against the wall.  As I gave the file drawers a quick once-over, I asked her how I could distinguish between what was helpful (and won contracts) and what wasn’t.  She laughed.  “We never thought to sort them that way,” she replied.  “I guess that would have been helpful.”  I learned that if you’re keeping documentation, it needs to be meaningful to someone besides yourself.  All of the saved files in the world are useless if there’s not a consistent approach or naming convention.

Human Contact

For everything you do that matters, at some stage of the game, there is human contact.  And it’s not always the same human.  The more people you identify as “informed,” the better off your project story becomes.  For me, I’m blessed with my wife, Nancy, who knows virtually every aspect of my life and my life story.  But there are so many others with the fine details of other components of my life. We need these people.  They know so much and can offer so much more detail. For me, the list begins at the beginning of my life and continues until just this month:

  • Virginia P – The only contact who knows everything, literally, from the beginning
  • Jody Z – Details on my life from Cub Scouts through college
  • Jeff Z – Details from early college to present (with a hometown flavor)
  • Drew Y – Details from the college years, with a smattering of other more recent history
  • Rick U – A comrade, roommate and co-worker from the “Maine years” who can share details about life on Bailey Island.
  • Nancy P – My best friend, from the time I moved to Maryland to present
  • Dick Y – A radio friend and comrade from the first Western Maryland days
  • Deborah B – My one co-worker from ESI International who helped me through the challenges of a major career change
  • Simon B – One of my two key London allies who provided a sense of kindred spirit despite the distance
  • Lisa H and Dave N – My peers when I stepped out on my own who understand the challenges of flying solo in business and who made me feel valued
  • Steve E – An all-business businessman who made me feel esteemed as a peer
  • Dr. David H – My other key London ally who defended me in difficult professional times
  • My sons, Adam and James – Who know all of the inside jokes, dirty little secrets and the family stuff from their beginnings

And the list could easily go on, and on, and on…  As our projects move closer to fruition, names and roles become paramount in building a personal and professional history.  When the history looks a little cloudy, a single conversation with a single individual can render focus and clarity.  If the names and contact information for those individuals are lost to time, then recreating the most valuable aspects of anything we do is difficult, if not impossible.

An important note is that if YOU are the person on that list, professionally or personally, be prepared to carry that role from now until time immemorial.  Whatever the tidbit of history, it will haunt you.  Three years after I got out of radio, I got a call from the newest news director at WASH-FM.  Carl, you were the news director at WASH, right?  I replied in the affirmative.  Great!  When you’re hosting Lillian Brown for “Georgetown University Forum,” do you…  I cut the caller off. 

I haven’t worked at WASH for years.  Why are you asking me?

He replied, You’re the only one whose name I could find who might be able to help me.  So anyhow, When you’re hosting Lillian for…

I found it unbelievable.  And flattering.  But beware, the knife here cuts both ways.  If you did a subpar performance, even for good reason, that, too, will come back to haunt.

Lesson Learned: No poorly performed good deed goes unpunished.  I had created a case study for a Scheduling and Cost Control training that was clean and simple, but the client felt it was too simple.  My old boss, Ed (best boss I ever had), came to me and told me that I had six weeks to put together a new case study that was much more complicated and much more detailed than the original.  I explained that such an effort would take months, not weeks, and was told to put something together that would survive for just a few classes.  It didn’t have to be good.  It had to get done.  I put together a piece of crap that should never have seen the light of day, but it was sufficiently convoluted that it satisfied the clients’ need for complexity.  Fast forward from 1993 to 2005.  Twelve years later, I was sitting in my home office when the phone rang.  “Is this Carl Pritchard?” I replied in the affirmative.  “Did you write the Scheduling and Cost Control case study?”  Again, I affirmed their information.  The tirade began.  “This is an absolute piece of crap.  I can’t believe they ever used it and I have no idea how you let yourself be convinced that this was quality work.  You should…” When you are the only one knows the history, you’re the only one who knows why quality was abandoned and how such a shoddy piece of work made it off your computer and into common use.  Be braced to own whatever you’re associated with.

Off the Hook

When are we done?  Are we there yet?  A friend of mine, Paul Chaney, sent me an e-mail with his Stage Four project story.  He was having trouble speaking in a group setting and had trouble swallowing.  His version of the story? He went to his doctor.  He checked the lump, looked down my throat and announced I had stage IV throat cancer and time was of the essence.  Paul went through the treatments and the challenges and had hoped he was doneHe wrote, The chemo and radiation quashed the cancer, although an unintended side effect was it blocked the entrance to my esophagus, leaving me unable to swallow and dependent on a stomach tube.  In 2018, the cancer showed up again in my epiglottis, which I had surgery for. I’m hoping that’s the last I see of it.  

You could argue that Paul’s done with it.  You could also argue that I’ll never be done with mine.  In both cases, it really doesn’t matter.  “Done” does not mean that the cancer is totally in the rear-view mirror.  It also doesn’t mean surrender.  “Done” is whatever we define it to be.  And frankly, I don’t mind not being done.  Paul shared that he’s in better shape now than he has been in years.  Me, too!  When we get information that seems virtually life-ending, it doesn’t have to be. 

My best man’s father was sent to a nursing home at age 95.  He could have considered this a “warehousing” moment until he passed away.  Instead, to hear my best man tell it, his dad became the king of the nursing home, taking it upon himself to know and interact with virtually everyone, every day.  And for the last five years of his life, it was a role he relished. 

We should not strive to be off the hook.  For better or for worse, our lives evolve from the actions of our past and our hope for the future.  There are keys, and my mother captured them handsomely when she would catch me acting glum.

You never know that tomorrow won’t be the very best day of your entire life.

Wow, Mom.  That’s profound.  It was and is. 

My Mother, MaryBeth Pritchard, circa 1970

Lesson Learned: No matter how miserable or draining a particular event is in your life, there’s always tomorrow.  It’s the hope that’s imbued in that day that makes the challenges worth living.  So, when in doubt, repeating my mother’s lesson is worth the investment of a few seconds.  You never know that tomorrow won’t be the very best day of your entire life.

That’s the core of my project story, but not the last chapter.  As lessons present themselves, I’ll continue to add to the Stage Four Project story, with the basic reminder that my mother was right.  Tomorrow may very well be that day.

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.

If you wanted to read the lead-ins to this segment, they can be found at: