Strategy and Cancer

Submitted by GaryGagliardi on

I get a lot of questions about how Sun Tzu's strategy helped me conquer cancer. I originally  wrote this article on my strategy blog in response to a reader's question.

First, it would be inaccurate to say that I “healed myself” with strategy. I used the principles of strategy to make good choices that have allowed me to survive. This experience inspired me to offer my books to a larger audience outside the corporate world where I had been working for years. Others may find it of interest.

Situation and Response

When most people are diagnosed with cancer, they react emotionally. They don't know what else to do. Our emotional reactions to a challenge come down to the "flight or fight" reflex. In the case of most cancer victims, they run away from the challenge. They usually do this by putting themselves as the mercy of whatever doctors they happen to have. They don't know what to do so they "surrender" the responsibility for their fate to their doctors.

But cancer and disease in general is exactly the type of competitive environment for which strategy was designed. When I was diagnosed, I felt I knew exactly what I had to do. Though good strategy cannot assure your success in an specific battle including these deadly battles, it does increase your chances, which is all you can ask. I could have used good strategy and still died, but using good strategy I did improve my chances of survival.

This started years before I was diagnosed with good initial positioning. This was due more to my wife, who is more active in health issues because of health issues in her family. Years ago, she set out to find us the best general practice doctor in our area. She did this.

We had been with him for years, but it was his skill that actually diagnosed my problem early. I was in stage-two cancer, but had no typical symptoms, but during an examination for a sinus infection, he found a swollen lymph gland. The swelling was subtle. I couldn't even see it. A sonogram of the gland was negative, but my doctor sent me to another great doctor  who specialized in head and neck problems. That doctor didn't even feel the swollen gland but just sent me for a biopsy to be safe.

That was when I was diagnosed, but I wouldn't have been diagnosed if I hadn't been positioned with good doctors, something most people don't bother doing. Fortunately, we (that is, my wife) did this quite consciously years ago. Fortunately, also because of strategic positioning, we also had financial resources and good personal medical insurance, which made the rest of my response possible.

My response to diagnosis consciously followed the four steps of the progress cycle - listen, aim, move, and claim.

Listen: I knew I had to learn as much about my type cancer and possible courses of treatment. I used the web to find out everything that I could about the type of cancer I had, its treatment, and my choices regarding physicians in my area.

Aim: There were two schools of treatment for my cancer. In choosing my course of treatment, I choose the one which was very painful and debilitating but which had a higher success rate. I chose the doctor in our area that was the most experienced in that treatment. People have a choice of doctors, but don't get the best because they don't think it is their place to choose. This is a fatal mistake.

Move: I moved instantly, getting two operations within a week of being diagnosed. I  started radiation as soon as I recovered from surgery. I took the maximum dose of radiation, which happens to be extremely painful for my cancer.

Claim: In the years since, I have accepted my status and the disabilities from my course of treatment. I live with a certain level of discomfort. Since my treatment destroyed my saliva glands (and taste buds), I have to give myself fluoride treatments every day to maintain my teeth. However, for me, the bottom line is that I survived.

By Comparison

As a comparison, within weeks of my diagnosis, a wife of a friend was diagnosed with a stage-one cancer of the same type. It started in the same place, the tonsil, but it hadn't spread to the lymph glands. Instead of dealing with it, she, like so many, surrendered her fate to the doctors she happened to have. These doctors, as the odds dictate, were just average. These doctors chose the easier course of treatment, the one that was the "safest" in terms of their need for specialized skills.  Her treatment was designed as a "kinder gentler" approach, using just limited radiation and avoiding the painful surgery.

At the time, we tried to communicate through her husband the increased risks involved. However, they, like most people, were just not equipped to make these decisions. Instead, they clung to the fact that her cancer was less advanced and therefore less dangerous.

They didn't kill all the cancer with radiation. It kept recurring. Because of their slow, limited response, the cancer got ahead and she fell behind.

As the cancer spread, she eventually went through a series of operations. Most of these much more painful and debilitating than mine. They were also performed by less experienced surgeons. She had the same neck dissection on one side that I had, but as the cancer spread, she ended up having another one as well. She also had part of her palate removed.

In the end, she went through hell. She eventually died about two years after diagnosis, which is about normal this is a very fast cancer.


This experience was why I decided to start teaching strategy outside of the corporate world. People have to be trained how to respond in a crisis. Without training, they are paralyzed. People have to understand that unless they take responsibility for their own position and making their own life or death decisions, nobody else can.

This experience lead directly to my writing books like The Golden Key to Strategy, aimed at a more general audience. Hopefully, I can get everyone thinking about good positioning and productive reactions.