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

Segment Seventeen – It’s Laughable

I’ve always been good for a laugh, giving or receiving.  Ask my grade school friends.  Ask my high school friends.  Ask my college buddies.  Ask my roommates in Maine.  Ask my wife.  Well, wait a minute.  Maybe you don’t ask my wife.  She’s been there through the entire cancer journey.  And when it started, the journey was anything but laughable. 

So how do you make the migration and become the ideal that Ella Wheeler Wilcox called out in her 1906 poem, Worthwhile?

It is easy enough to be pleasant,
    When life flows by like a song,
But the man worthwhile is one who will smile,
    When everything goes dead wrong.

That poem hung on the wall in our den the entire time I was growing up.  It was accompanied by a cartoonish painting of a sailor who had been beaten badly, missing teeth, but smiling as he leaned on a lamppost. 

Every now and then, my parents would point to the picture as a reminder to smile, and laugh, through adversity.  That’s not an easy message to send or receive. 

Taking Stock of Disasters and Problems

Want to be the smiling one when everything goes dead wrong?  Take an inventory.  Look at everything you’ve survived.  Things have gone wrong in your world—accidents, broken bones, lost loves, lost jobs, and yes, for some of us, incurable cancer. Before you can start smiling back at misfortune, you have to realize that you are a survivor. 

Lesson Learned: One of the most joyous moments of my life was when my Daimler-Chrysler PT Cruiser was hit head-on by a Peterbilt semi.  I had spun out in the rain, and struck a bridge abutment before bouncing into the center lane of I-70, facing the wrong way.  As I marveled that I was still breathing, I looked up and saw the front grill of a Peterbilt racing down my lane toward my car.  It was a scene from a movie.  The truck driver was hitting his brakes so hard, he risked jackknifing.  I could hear his tires squealing across the pavement as the grill got closer and closer, and the word “Peterbilt” became larger and larger in my view.  He hit the front of my car at an angle, sending me spinning (again).  The car again bounced off the bridge abutments, coming to rest facing the right direction on I-70.  I was alive.  My car was toast, but I was largely uninjured.  (My Motorola Startac phone was crushed in my pocket).  As I got out of the car, I started to laugh.  Why?  Take your pick.  #1: I was alive. #2: It was April Fool’s Day, 2014.  #3: I was going to be late to start teaching my Risk Management class.  When you are faced with sudden catastrophe, remember to be exceedingly glad that you’re not the disaster.  It’s just happening around you.

So, if you’ve already taken an inventory of the miracle of your own life, you can now move on to the second step in the process—Being Fearless!

Being Fearless

I admit that I’m largely a scaredy-cat (does anyone actually still use that phrase?) on most things.  But when it comes to relationships and conversations, I take a lot of risks.  I’m big on self-deprecating humor and I don’t hesitate to drag others along with me.  That’s risky.  It’s one thing to mock yourself.  It’s another thing entirely to have a quick laugh at the (modest) expense of others.  Still, being fearless is part of the process.  Those people you’re closest to will generally wear it as a badge of honor to be among the harassed. 

Lesson Learned: I wasn’t sure about one peer of mine and how he’d handle being the target of my jabs when I was teaching a class in Arizona.  Rather than take the risk of pointing to him as an anal-retentive nitpicker, I forewarned him.  “Mark?  I’m planning on using you as my prime target in class for people who turn almost obsessive-compulsive about setting the stage before stepping out on it.  You OK with that?”  He beamed.  He was pleased with the prospect that I’d be using him as the poster child for my situation, and more pleased that he’d get the added exposure of having his name invoked in my class (since he was teaching his own across the hall). When the classes were over, he approached me.

“I was really glad you warned me that I was going to be the butt of your jokes in class.  I got SO much mileage out of being the aggrieved party and taking it all with a smile.  Any time you want to do that, feel free!”

Self-deprecation is one thing.  Deprecating others is quite a bit different, but it can be done to great effect.

Let It Go

One of the other critical notions is to (as the song says) Let It Go. Things go wrong.  Let it go.  Things go right. Let it go.  You have to be ready on both sides of the equation.  In 2019, I was honored by PMI Global with the Eric Jenett award – The Best of the Best in Project Management.  Let it go.  That was years ago.  Go back further.  I won all four rounds on Wheel of Fortune in 1987 (and then blew the bonus round for the Buick Skylark).  Let it go.  I was able to convince Patty Shingleton to go out with me on my first real date (and then didn’t have the guts to kiss her afterwards).  Let it go.  Notice that those are all good things that transpired in my life.  Feel free to go over to the Dark Side.

I broke my wrists (first left, and then six months later, right) in quick succession, one of them as I tripped on my way to a high school classmate’s mother’s funeral.  Let it go.  I caved in my skull in a moped accident and suffered a years’ worth of migraines on top of three burr holes in my head.  Let it go.  And now, neuroendocrine (read: incurable) cancer of the liver. 

Let it go?

Yup.  That’s the philosophy.  The good and the bad.  Let ‘em go.  You want to be the one with the smile when everything goes dead wrong?  Let it go. 

It doesn’t happen fast.  The first few months after any personal setback will invariably be a tough time to let it go.  Notice that letting it go doesn’t mean to fuhgeddaboudit (which actually is in the Oxford English Dictionary).  You won’t forget.  Not the good, not the bad.  But you can let it go.  Relegate the peaks and the valleys, the apex and the nadir, the highs and the lows…to a middle ground.  They cannot dominate your life if you’re going to be able to laugh about them.  My entire 1988 did not center around the amazing, incredible birth of my first son.  Instead, everyone who hadn’t seen me in a while wanted to focus on how I blew the Buick on Wheel of Fortune.  Forget that I CRUSHED Kay and Larry for four rounds straight—the bonus round is what they remembered.  Let it go. 

You’re far more laughable when you handle adversity well.  You’re far more laughable when you realize that the high points are short-lived, and only worth embracing briefly.  You’re more laughable when you genuinely smile at the fortune (rather than misfortune) of others. 

I lost a college coworker and friend recently.  The true beauty of her passing is that I know that in her final days (which had no cue or clue they were her final days) she laughed, she accomplished, and she was joyous in the successes of others.  I hadn’t talked to her in years.  But I don’t need a blow-by-blow report of her last weeks to know that she reveled in the world around her.  She was always laugh-able. 

Lesson Learned: Be that person.  Find something to relish.  Find something amusing.  My wife is excellent at this.  If I’m watching some serious news or serial drama focusing on life’s losses, she’s quick to either leave the room, or ask if we can’t watch something else.  She’s on a quest for the good and the upbeat.  And while life can’t always be upbeat, she has the right attitude.

But the one worthwhile is one who will smile,
    When everything goes dead wrong.

It’s worth remembering. 

Up next?  What another can do—I can do.  Or how the movie The Edge and Anthony Hopkins helped shape my current life philosophy.

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.