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

Segment Thirty-One—I Can’t Handle One More Thing.  Unless I Have To.

My monthly visit with the oncologist (Dr. Mavromatis) was going well.  Until it wasn’t.  All of the news was normal, normal, normal.  I still have cancer.  It’s not progressing quickly in my liver or lung.  It remains inoperable. Welcome to the news I’ve grown accustomed to.  I’m still doing my monthly chemotherapies, and I’m tolerating them surprisingly well. 

I do have a little concern here, she said.

When you’re embarking on Year 3 of the cancer journey, these are not words you really want to hear.  In fact, as she said them, I was half-tempted to jam my fingers in my ears and begin humming The Yellow Rose of Texas. (That’s my default song for trying not to hear what’s being said in any setting).  I have monthly chemotherapy pills.  I have my monthly chemotherapy injection.  I have my quarterly PET scans.  I can’t handle one more thing.  But apparently, I have to.

I’ve been here before, just not with cancer.  When my parents were getting divorced, I kept getting little “discoveries” about their relationship that I didn’t want to know.  When I was trying to wrap up my collegiate career, there was always one more class, one more form, or one more requirement that The Ohio State University wanted before they’d issue my diploma.  As an author, the editors would tell me I was all set, except for…  You get the idea.  And with my latest foray into medical oncology, there was one more little concern. 

When you’re trying to work through any project—even the cancer project—”one more thing” is generally a tough row to hoe.  It’s challenging because there’s an inference that the work to-date is not sufficient to the task.  In my case, it cuts to the quick.  (The etymology of cut to the quick related to the “quick” being a term used to describe one of the under-layers of skin which is highly sensitive, and which, if cut, hurts terribly).  In my case, it cuts beyond the quick…down to the bone.  I learned that the “one more little concern” relates to my bones.  Apparently my bones are drinking in some of the cancer cells flowing through my body.  This means I may get to add bone cancer to the list of ailments related to my neuroendocrine tumors of the liver and lung.  Great.  I can’t handle it.  But…

I guess I have to.

In reality, nothing has changed.  I feel no better or worse than I did a month ago.  I didn’t have any new aches or pains.  But now I have something new to keep an eye on.  As project managers, this is often the story of our existence.

Lesson Learned: Keep it simple.  My “Risk Management: Concepts & Guidance” text is now in its fifth edition.  Perhaps the hardest version to write, however, was the second edition.  It was significant formatic change from the first, and there was a new editorial staff to placate. The summer of 2001 was rife with editorial changes on top of editorial changes.  Finally, in July, all but the most minute finishing touches were done.  Except when they weren’t.  On September 12, 2001, I got the phone call.  The first edition of the book had a tall building on the cover.  The second edition was to reflect that by having two tall buildings on the cover.  What was a clever editorial choice took on a whole new meaning on September 11, 2001.  “Carl,” my editor explained, “We were literally going to press on the book and had to halt production yesterday. It’s the cover.”  My initial reaction was that the cover wasn’t really anything I had a lot of control over, but… And then I understood completely.  Before that phone call, everything was fine.  Until it wasn’t.  Twin towers on the cover of a Risk Management textbook would be in phenomenally bad taste.  “You have 24 hours to pick from four other covers.  I’ve e-mailed them to you.  Let me know which ones will work for you.” The second edition has a bridge covered by dense fog on the cover.  No buildings on the third, fourth or fifth editions, either.  While I was ready to argue for all of the hours that had been invested in selecting and redesigning covers and cover art, the vagaries of an international tragedy forced us back to the literal drawing board.  The job got done.   You can’t handle things.  Until you have to.

I don’t know that my editor could have soft-pedaled the problem to me.  I don’t know that my oncologist can either.  We need to take a deep breath before we allow the visceral reaction to change to kick in. 

Oh, and one more thing? 

This morning I was walking my dog (Mocha) when an uncontrolled local dog came charging at us.  I knew my job as Mocha’s owner—Human Shield.  I asserted myself between the two dogs, but Mocha still yanked to get away.  She yanked me into a stone culvert at the side of the street, shredding my leg like so much soft gouda.  My blood created a puddle in the culvert as the charging dog continued to try to grab my pooch.  Fortunately (?), the owner yanked her dog away and began apologizing.  The dogs never came tooth-to-tooth, but the stones in the culvert left me running to the emergency room.  I had a full schedule today.  Until I had a fuller schedule, complete with x-rays and 14 stitches.  This morning, I had a plan and a full schedule.  And I knew I couldn’t handle one more thing.  Until…

Lesson Learned: Since the man-versus-ditch episode, I’ve been strongly reminded of why the Stoics of ancient Greece had it right.  I never yelled at my neighbor, as I wouldn’t be able to take it back and still have to live with her nearby for the rest of our mutual lives.  I thanked the ministers of pain in the emergency room, as they were doing their job and really didn’t need a whiney senior citizen on their hands.  And I brushed it off (despite the large bandages on my leg) to those around me, as they saw me as “toughing it out” (and told me so) even though I felt like whimpering like a wounded kitten.  We may have the sense that it’s vital that others know our inmost pain, but we actually get more credit as persons and professionals if we’re able to keep our heads while others around us are losing theirs (thanks, Rudyard Kipling).

This is being written on a Friday, and my last class of the week is now behind me.  I’m really grateful for the upcoming weekend, as I can’t handle one more thing.  Unless I have to.

Up next?   Goofy things that no-one really knows…but should…

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.