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

Segment Twenty-Three– Being Ready for Life’s Risks (before the warning bells)

I am truly honored to be the son of Mary Beth Pritchard.  My mom was the most remarkable woman I had the pleasure to know.  She died over 15 years ago from pancreatic cancer. 

Hey Carl, your cancer might be in the genes!

No kidding.  My grandmother died of cancer when my mother was still a pre-teen.  My father contracted cancer in his 50s (and survived into his 80s).  My sister had her go-round with cancer in her 50s (and is now in her 60s).  Cancer is definitely a Pritchard family thing.  

Then you KNEW this could be coming.

Look in the mirror, my friend.  It can come for any of us.  My particular cancer hits .003 percent of the CANCER population.  That’s not of the human population.  That’s .003 percent of those who contract cancer.  I’m a rare little creature.

As I taught a risk management class today, I found it interesting that people were worried about client risks, about physical risks and about compliance risks.  When I was more active as a project manager, my primary worries included the “will-this-actually-work” risks.  Up until three years ago, my biggest health risk worry was being overweight.  Drop 60 pounds in two months, and your priority risks change.  When my weight started to drop, I actually deceived myself into believing it was the product of my diet finally bearing some fruit.  I didn’t hear the warning bells.  Now, my ears are attuned to them.

We all should hear the warning bells.  One gentleman I used to work with said he never saw the divorce papers coming until he was served with them.  I marveled.  He was on the road half the time and he didn’t seem to care much for his wife.  I swear I could have predicted it long before the legal papers ever hit his desk.  When I’m in my car (perhaps because I drove junk for so many years), I can sense when I’m going to be dragging it into the shop based on a new squeak, a new spot on the garage floor, or vibration when I hit the brakes on a downhill run.  Those are warning bells. 

In the movie, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson has an epic moment as he screams at Tom Cruise—You can’t handle the truth!.  In so many ways, we all become Tom Cruise from time to time.  We can’t cope with the bad news, so we turn off the alarm bells.  There’s an inherent risk in doing that.  If we turn off the alarm bells, we may get trapped in the fire. 

Lesson Learned:  If someone offers you alarm bells, take them.  Take them even if you take them with the proverbial grain of salt. The “grain of salt” saying came from Pliny the Elder in about 70AD.  It referred to the mitigating properties of salt when someone was trying to poison you.  If you took poison with a grain of salt, you were less likely to be seriously affected. 

Getting back to the point here, alarm bells sound from time to time.  When the kitchen smoke alarm goes off, it normally means that you burned food, rather than that you’re about to burn down the house.  But the alarm bells can be our allies.  I just received my monthly report on some of my cancer markers.  For most people, the alarm bells would be sounding loudly.  I, by contrast, am celebrating (with a whole SHAKER of salt).  For me, the same numbers that would alarm non-patients are good numbers.  We need to take the time to analyze the relative severity of our alarm bells.  When customers, friends, and family get panicked over a situation, outcome or potential WE are the ones who have to determine if we should react with alarm, or with a grain of salt. 

As a society, we’ve evolved into the land of alarm bells.  That’s problematic.  When you’re worried about everything, you actually can’t worry about anything. I defy the hospital to come back with a comprehensive medical workup without finding something (besides my primary ailment) that I should be worried about.  I defy the media to spend ten minutes without identifying some new situation that shouldn’t cause me alarm.  (I tested this, by the way, clicking the News icon on my laptop while writing this.  I’m supposed to be worried that DoorDash won’t come if I don’t tip, my school board may label me as a terrorist if I attend a meeting, AirBNB may charge my credit card for damages I didn’t do, and my grocery store may lock me out for good if I decide to show up five minutes before they open).

Should I worry about any of those things?  No.  Are others (in this case, the media) trying to make me worry about those things?  Yes. 

To effectively manage risk in our lives, we need to find that delicate balance between listening for alarm bells and shutting out alarm glockenspiels.  Carl, what the devil is an alarm glockenspiel?  Alarm bells were the loud, clanging bells that used to hang on the wall of virtually every public building.  Glockenspiels are high-pitched “bells” that sound like they aspire to be a bell, but didn’t quite cut it.


Most of the alarms we get anymore fall into that shrill, high-pitched (but not meaningful) category.  They get our attention and try to spur us to action, but…

The downside of the endless array of alarms is that we don’t know which ones are worthy of our attention. 

Lesson Learned: Consider the criteria to determine if your latest alarm bell is worthy.

  • Will you be directly affected if the alarm event comes to pass?  (No, I don’t use AirBNB)
  • Even if it does come to pass, can you withstand the outcome?  (Being locked out of my grocery store would likely be a favor, not a curse)
  • Do I wind up in a better place if I simply ignore the alarm?

The last one is the hardest to ascertain. My mother’s plumber was a lifetime smoker, who paid the price with cancer.  He got all of the early warnings from family and friends that smoking was deleterious to his health.  He got the warning from his physician that his lifestyle had to change. He got Stage Four lung cancer.  To his credit, he opted not to undergo any treatments for his disease.  Instead, with a “without-treatment-you-have-six-months” diagnosis, he proceeded to travel the world, pursue a few bucket list items and wait until the cancer stopped him.  It stopped him about two weeks before he passed away.  For him?  Ignoring the alarms was his right answer.  He preferred to have his lifestyle for a few months rather than aggressively pursuing treatment.  I never could have done that.  And I’m glad I didn’t.  But at the same time, listening to the alarms and asking the right personal questions is always the right thing to do.

Being ready for life’s risks is not generally the concept of having both a belt and suspenders.  It’s having the fortitude to know…in advance…where you’re going to draw the line.  Mom’s plumber knew.  He could handle the truth.  I know where I draw the lines, and I’m listening for every alarm bell I can hear.  It’s a personal choice only if you make the choice while there are multiple options.  And when someone tells you that you should be worked up or panicked by a given situation, ask yourself whether or not you’ve actually considered your options.  This may not be your day to heed the alarms.  It may be the day to heed them with a grain of salt.  OR, it may be the day to be proactive and work to ensure the alarm bells never go off.

Up next?  Everything old is new again…or it SHOULD BE!!

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.