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

Segment Twenty-Seven–It’s Not Just Me…Unfortunately

Whatever pain and grief you’re undergoing…be it cancer or the things that aren’t getting done on your next project, someone else is experiencing the same pain, or worse.  I learned this about a year ago, when a friend of mine came to me to share his cancer diagnosis.  I had seen it before when experiencing a serious project problem, only to find out that a co-worker’s grief was worse than mine.

It’s a grounding moment. 

You believe that no one could have a worse situation than yours.  Until they do.  For me, it was a friend (Rich) who had some questions about my management of Stage Four cancer.  We shared all the same words.  Incurable.  Metastatic. Inoperable. And then the same treatments. Chemotherapy.  Radiation. Surgery. All with similar outcomes, including the terminal prognosis. The big difference? His prognosis was not improving.  I had originally been evaluated as having two years to live.  I’m now out to 10-15.  He was evaluated at one to two years, and there’s been no improvement. 

When I spoke with his wife, I could see the same sorrow I had seen in my wife’s eyes when we made our early oncology visits together.  My wife and his (Brenda) both face the prospect of life without their life partner. 

What do you do when your life project throws you the ultimate curve? You hold on to what you have. 

I think about Brenda and Rich a lot.  I count myself even more blessed, by virtue of the “it could be worse” considerations.  But there’s more to this.  It’s something that’s a project lesson, a risk lesson and a life lesson.  It comes in four key elements:

Lesson Learned:

  1. When nothing is going wrong, celebrate and seize the day.  All too often we mark days like this as humdrum or uneventful.  Rich understood this is almost criminal.  He would instead use uneventful days to go on day trips with family or leave a lasting mark. 
  2. When bad news hits, no matter how bad, remember that it could be worse. When our basement flooded, we were upset.  We could have been my wife’s cousin in California, whose home was swallowed up by a mudslide.  When I used to fly almost every week, I strove to remember that if my flight was delayed, there are other flights that never made their destination.
  3. When the tragedies of others move into your sphere, take notes on how to make their lives and your life better.  For Brenda and Rich, we became the unofficial cat-sitters.  If we were around, we ensured the litter was changed and the cats got the attention they needed.  On projects, find ways to be the unofficial team member, willing to take on some of the challenges that might otherwise be overly daunting (It’s called Servant Leadership).
  4. Don’t draw comparisons. Although it may seem that drawing comparisons is all I’ve suggested here, that’s not the case.  Every person lives through every experience in their own way. What might seem catastrophic to you might be a speed bump to someone else.  And the inverse is also true. Take the time to let them talk and share their experience before influencing it with your own.

Tough-Time Communication

Perhaps the biggest thing is to build on the relationships by virtue of effective tough-time communication.  If you’re facing a serious challenge, it’s not a time for one-upsmanship.  It’s a time to deploy your best empathetic communications skills.  This applies whether the challenges are health, work, project or personally oriented.  Three foundational rules in this environment are crucial to apply.

  • Communicate first by listening. You learn this lesson every time your cell phone rings, there’s a moment of silence and a faint “ding”, followed by an individual looking for (insert a wrong pronunciation of your name here).  You don’t need a “Potential Spam” notice to know that this is not a helpful message coming your way. 
  • Also, if the person on the other end of the call is someone you need to hear from, let them go first. Steering the conversation at the outset may drive the conversation into the ditch. Let it follow the natural path that they care to take.
  • Set the communications stage, and affirm the other person is in agreement.  When I was first diagnosed, I realized how important this was, and in many instances, I still do it today.  When I’m talking with Rich or Brenda, I try to preface the conversation with a reference to the maximum amount of time I’ll consume.  I just wanted to check in for ten minutes and see how you’re faring today. Let them adjust the schedule as they deem appropriate, but in most health and business situations, ten minutes is a good jumping-off point.
  • Only offer cures, advice, and guidance that are simple, direct, and applicable.  The fact that your cousin had amazing success with a Costa Rican hospitalist is intriguing, but nothing I’m going to follow up on.  And while you may have read a fascinating article about the benefits of chugging apple cider vinegar, stick to the simple help.  Most people would rather hear about an amazing discount on Coca-Cola at the local market than a new form of acupuncture available only 60 miles away.
  • Leave them wanting. God bless Tom Durney.  Tom was a boss of mine at WASH-FM, and gave me some of the best communications advice I ever had.  I had just had an amazing on-air morning on WASH when Tom called me into his office.  He told me I was on fire, and was really insanely funny that morning.  His advice?  Don’t talk so much.  Make the message shorter.  Leave them wanting. I thought perhaps he missed his own point.  I was as engaging and witty as I had ever been.  He wanted me to do that LESS?  Yes.  And he was absolutely right.

Even when you’re tempted to continue the meeting, the phone call, the conversation…stop.  If your time has expired, save it for another day.  People often ask me how I always seem to hit the mark in terms of finishing presentations and meetings on time.  The cure is simple.  Shut up.  Nothing I say is going to improve upon what’s already been said.  And if it is, I better squeeze it in in the next 30 seconds, or my message won’t get through anyhow. The same applies if it’s a Zoom call or a personal encounter with someone who’s convalescing.

No matter how many times your Mom told you that you are special and unique, you need to remember that everyone else is, too.  They have gifts.  They have situations and challenges.  They’re in the proverbial “pickle”, and in many cases, it’s a tougher pickle than yours.  Be grateful for your relative position in the pickle hierarchy. 

And that quote you’ve always heard?

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

It goes all the way back to 60 AD and a philosopher named Epictetus.  The concept hasn’t changed in 2000 years.

Up next?   So you want to do the ADVANCED approach?  Think twice.

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.