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

Segment Thirteen– The Bad Day and the New, Improved, YOU!

I’ve been very impressed with my cancer treatment over the past two years-plus.  Really.  I originally dropped 60 pounds (and I’ve gained it all back), could barely walk, and was constantly wrestling with serious, gut-wrenching nausea.  And thanks to medical science, that has passed.  For now.  Until that morning.  

We all have bad days.  In my case, it was a morning that sent me racing, wondering where the previous night’s dinner would return—up or down.  That has since passed.  But I was truly shaken to my core.  There were days when, despite the constant interruptions caused by medical science, I could forget about my ailments. 

You have bad days.  I can say that with confidence.  We all do.  The big challenge is allowing ourselves to get past them.  It’s when the bad days compound themselves with our personal past history, the challenge becomes overwhelming.  Before the cancer, the last time this happened was when my back went out.  Prior to that? Too many little instances to count.  With this bout of nausea, it was gone within a day, and life is back to relative normalcy.  With my back?  It took about six months and a dozen medical procedures.  And life is back to relative normalcy.  Phew. 

Take a moment, right now, and do a personal self-assessment.  Can you hear?  Can you see?  Can you remember your mother’s and father’s middle names?  Can you walk?  Are you reasonably pain-free? Can you draw breath?  For every “yes” answer, you should have a moment of gratitude.  At some point in your life, you had more “no” answers than you do right now.  You have improved. 

Lesson Learned: When you fear you’re having a relapse (of any kind), take stock of your circle of influence.  When you evaluate those things that you can do something about, ask if you’re doing all you can.  And if there have been times when conditions have been worse that they are right now, celebrate the fact that your life is improving, even occasionally.

A lot of the disquiet associated with the bad days comes from fear.  I know I’m afraid that my lungs will give out, my liver will give out, or that I’ll return to the mind-numbing pain of an atypical migraine.  I fear their return.  In the day-to-day, we all have fears.  I may lose my job.  My colleague may hate me and say bad things about me. My dog may escape and get hit by a trash truck (yes, it really happened…but 3 years later, she’s fine).  As a risk management specialist, it’s actually part of my job to identify the evil things that may transpire and to develop strategies to deal with them.  Part of my actual job is to (on a business and corporate level) minimize fear. 

The easiest way to manage such fears is to have a plan.  It doesn’t have to be a perfect plan, but there has to be a plan.  For the health stuff, for now, Medicare and Blue Cross are doing a fine job of managing the financial risks. For the personal stuff, I have my team.  That would be my family (and the dog).  If co-workers aren’t being my allies, I know I have a fallback.  Her name’s Nancy.  For forty years, she’s been a source of comfort and reassurance. 

But it goes beyond my family.  I constantly strive to build my network.  At the grocery store?  It’s Dee or Jay.  In the training universe?  It’s Lisa and Dave.  I wouldn’t expect these people to leap at the opportunity to help with my deepest feelings, but oddly enough, I think any one of them would do it.  How do I find these people?  Ritual.  We have rituals.  And if you want the ultimate back-up plans, they most often start with ritual.  And those rituals need to involve reliance on others.

Lesson Learned:  When I lived on Bailey Island, Maine, it was the only time of my life when my mail came “General Delivery.” If you don’t know what that is, it’s where the post office is small enough that you don’t have to have a mailbox and don’t have to have them deliver.  You just stop by the post office and say, “Peg, do I have any mail today?”  They hand you any letters or mail you’ve received. Weird.  The interesting thing is that those brief rituals evolve into occasional conversations, and an understanding of the people involved.  Over time, you get to know the names, snippets of personal history, and background on the people who appear to be on the periphery of your life.  I’ve only known Dee and Jay at my grocery for about two years, and only on a once-a-week basis.  But I know them well enough that if I were in crisis, they’d care.  How do you leverage such a lesson learned?  It’s pretty easy.  Join a singing group.  Join a church.  Find peers.  Go to a PMI meeting.  Memorize this phrase: “I’m pretty sure we’ve met before, but I’m lousy with names.  You are…?”  With a name, half the battle is won.  Write the name down.  NOW!  Before you forget.  Now, every time you see them, you can have a ritual, complete with names.

So, you’re having a bad day?  You now have a strategy.  It’s not going to cure the problem, but it is going to help ensure you survive it.  And your fear is reduced, as you know you have somewhere to turn.  All that’s left is affirming when the next good day is coming.

Turn that frown upside down!  Geez.  I hate commentary like that.  I’m in a mood to frown, thank you very much.  While (as your mother told you) your face will freeze like that, that’s not why you need to revert to a more positive attitude…eventually.  There’s no rush, but there’s also no reason to stand still. 

(Photo is my mother and grandmother standing still…but not frowning, despite their dire straits)

Risk is about both threat and opportunity.  It’s the downside and the upside.  While we tend to obsess about the next bad thing, we have full license to at least take a look at the next good thing.  As I wrestle with the fact that tomorrow is another visit to the lab and another chance that my numbers won’t keep the clinicians happy, there’s also the possibility that the numbers will improve.  My chromogranins (yes, that’s a thing, despite what spellcheck says) started near 40,000.  They’re down around 4,000 now.  Those are cancer markers.  My doctor says they’ll never go away for me, but the fact that they’re down or stable is nothing but good news.  So tomorrow’s visit to the lab may mean good news, and given the last 18 months, the odds are on the positive side. 

Lesson Learned: Focusing on the negative doesn’t make it more or less likely. The probabilities don’t change.  Even when a lot of things are going wrong, take pause to investigate what’s gone right.  At one point in my early adult life, I couldn’t pay my phone bill, couldn’t afford to fix my car and had to hitchhike to work. My mother came up for a visit and took me out grocery shopping.  The blessings of a full cupboard made up for a lot of the negatives in my life at the time.  Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers) is famously quoted as saying: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”  If you can hunt out a helper, you’ll find the negatives are not as burdensome as you might otherwise believe.  And if you have no helpers? Consider being the helper.  Making someone else’s load just a little lighter changes your perspective in short order.

There’s always a chance to find something good.  And if you have trouble finding it, being it is just as (if not more) powerful.

Next up?  Baby steps in a grown-up world.

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.