• Cancer Patient Stories

    Breast Cancer Treatment: It’s a Project and You are the Project Manager

Written by Karen Brown, Ph.D., Professor of Operations and Project Management, Thunderbird School of Global Management

Anyone facing or experiencing cancer treatment can relate to the idea that it’s a project: a set of coordinated activities aimed at a goal. There are actually two goals involved: 1) make it through treatment in the best physical and mental shape possible, and 2) go on to live a long, healthy, and satisfying life after treatment.

A good deal is known about what makes a project successful, and we can translate some of these notions to cancer treatment projects. The following video captures the basic principles:

Seven project management principles to continue guiding you through the process of treatment and beyond include:

1) Every project needs a manager. You have the most to gain or lose from the success of this project – the most “skin in the game,” as they say. Your care providers will play a central and essential role in your treatment, but you can see the big picture better than anyone else. Don’t hesitate to ask questions as you endeavor to piece together your plan of action.

2) Know and involve your stakeholders. A stakeholder in this case is anyone who will have an effect on your treatment, or anyone who will be affected by your treatment. Make a list and you’ll see it is longer than you might have guessed. Two groups of stakeholders are especially important: your care providers, and your circle of friends and family.
• Care providers: Show these people you appreciate what they are doing for you, and that you have confidence in the care they are delivering.
• Friends and family: You need them in your corner, so don’t keep them in the dark. Let them know what’s happening with your treatment and how you are coping. Many of them will want to offer you some sort of help. It actually makes them feel good – so, let them help! Their support, even if it comes from afar, will help you achieve your goals. But, remember they need you, too. Don’t become so focused on your cancer treatment that you abdicate your role as a giving and caring friend.

3) Have a communication plan and follow through. This is really an extension of the stakeholder issues highlighted above. Think about how you want to communicate with these people. Letters and cards? Will you call them? Will you let them know when it’s a good time to call you? Would you like them to visit? How about email messages announcing milestones? Personalize your messages – each of your stakeholders has a different type of relationship with you, and you should acknowledge this in your communication. Send snapshots from time to time, just so they’ll have an image of how you are doing, and be sure to smile in the photos.

4) Recognize and celebrate milestones. Research and practice have shown that the most successful projects involve milestone markers that give those involved a sense of accomplishment along the way. Fortunately for you, most cancer treatments are broken down into recognizable accomplishments: completion of chemo #1, completion of full chemo treatment, start of radiation, etc. Make it a point to celebrate these milestones with those around you – by completing each one, you take yourself another step closer to project completion.

5) Know the risks. Cancer treatment, as with anything in life, comes with risks. However, the potential benefits of the treatment (i.e., getting rid of your cancer) generally outweigh the potential downside outcomes. It’s helpful to be aware of risks because you can enter this project feeling informed, knowledgeable, and prepared. It’s helpful to have a mental plan about how you will respond if they arise. BUT, do not dwell on these risks – that will just exhaust you and divert your attention from what needs to be done. Be optimistic but realistic.

6) It’s a science experiment. Modern medicine has come a long way in the application of scientific methods for discovering the best possible treatment. Whatever that is today, you’ll be receiving it and should feel confident of this. At the same time, there are many unanswered questions about what goes along with the treatment – your nutrition, exercise, relationships with your circle of family and friends, activities that give you a sense of fulfillment, etc. These play a role, too, but they cannot be scientifically delivered in doses the way medical treatments are. On top of this, you are different from the next person receiving treatment, and what works for you might not work for someone else. Experiment.

7) It’s not the only project in your portfolio. The term “portfolio” in this sense refers to the entire set of projects defining your role in life. In addition to your cancer treatment and recovery, you have other responsibilities related to your role as an employee, business owner, spouse, parent, or community volunteer, to name a few common examples. It’s a good idea not to abandon all of these projects because they give you a sense of purpose in life and define who you are. But, perhaps your diagnosis has offered a wake-up call about possible overloads. This is a time to assess your portfolio to determine what’s worth keeping, what should be scaled back, and what should continue to be a meaningful part of your life during and after treatment.

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