Too Busy to Play Telephone: Practicing Consent as a Lifestyle

During my first few weeks of recovery from surgery, my family visited me. My sister flew in a couple days before my mastectomy and stayed for a week. She overlapped by a day with my parents, who stayed in a hotel near my home for almost a week and a half.

By the end of my parents’ last visit with me, my mom raised the topic of how people didn’t know how to talk to me. That is why some of them hadn’t said anything to me about my breast cancer diagnosis.

For context, this is an issue that came up quite a bit after I was initially diagnosed. My sister asked what she could share. A few cousins asked what they could share. Somehow other members of my extended family aren’t sure what they can or cannot say about my diagnosis to others.

Some relatives wanted to share my story with others, and other relatives were saying that they shouldn’t. I heard this from a few different sources in my family.

My mom said that some relatives told others to “just pray” for me—or at least that’s the story in this never-ending game of telephone.

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Image from Flickr

Who knows how accurate or inaccurate my mom’s recollection of people’s comments is! I don’t have time to dig too deep with that; however, based on my past experiences in life in general, I’m aware of how people share each other’s business—even in the most loving of communities.

I’m the baby of all of my cousins. I’ve witnessed how different relatives’ stories got passed down from one person to another in a game of telephone. When I was a young kid, I heard how parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family affiliates strongly reacted—for better or for worse—to people’s body images, fashion choices, educational decisions, professional trajectories, socioeconomic statuses, significant others (or not-so-significant others), family planning (or non-planning), health issues, successes, challenges, and tragedies.

Let’s be real. This happens beyond my family. Lots of families are like this. Hell, lots of social circles and workplaces are like this.

With this in mind, there are a few things I would like to say:

I am sharing my story on my own terms. If you know me personally and want to know what you can or cannot share with others, ask me. (You might say, “But she has a blog! Surely, I can tell others.” I will get into that later.)

Practicing consent is a good way to avoid a confusing game of telephone. I’ve talked about consent in sexual relationships in the past, and I believe in the importance of consent as a lifestyle that goes beyond sexual choices. In an article for Everyday Feminism, Suzannah Weiss listed 7 Ways to Practice Consent Outside of the Bedroom. If people were better about practicing consent in different parts of their lives, the #MeToo Movement wouldn’t be so global.

Yes, I am blogging about my personal experiences, including my breast cancer diagnosis. I recognize that the minute I post it publicly, I might not be able to control what happens beyond that.

With that said, if people know me personally and are confused about whether or not they could share my story with others, why have they not asked me directly what I want?

Don’t ask my mom. Don’t ask my sister. Ask me.

Also if it was so important for certain people to spread my news to others, why have they not reached out to me directly to ask how I am doing?

If it’s true that some people are telling others to “just pray” for me, that’s great … but did those people, who are telling others what to do, actually ask me if I wanted people to “just pray”?

Prayers are nice, but you want to know what else is nice? Contacting someone directly to ask them what they want and need. You might already have some ideas in mind for supporting them, but suggest those ideas to them—don’t force them. If you have the desire and capacity to fulfill certain needs, then do it. If you’re in a situation where all you could do is “just pray,” ask that person if there are specific issues, concerns, or needs with their healing and recovery that you could include in your prayers.

It’s funny to me that some people feel comfortable talking to others and a Higher Power about another person’s problems, but they don’t feel comfortable talking to the actual person with the problem.

What if the person with the problem doesn’t respond to you? What if they get angry? Well, at least you’re asking them and not someone else.

Unless the person with the problem officially designated someone to be their representative (e.g. their friend, partner, or family member), I would reach out to the person in the center of the situation.

If for some reason, reaching out to that person directly feels weird to you, you have to ask yourself why. What does that say about your larger relationship with that person?

You know that context better than I do. I can’t answer that for you.

I keep encouraging you to ask someone what they want and need. Here are some concrete examples of that from my personal experience with breast cancer thus far:

  1. I usually do laundry at a friend’s home. Since she was out of the country when I needed to do laundry one time, her husband picked me up and helped me transport my laundry to their house. In the car ride, he asked me how I was. I told him that I had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. He asked if his wife knew. I explained that I wanted to wait until she came back to town because I wanted to tell her in person. He thought about that for a minute. Then he asked if it would be okay if he told her on the phone. Her husband thought that she would really like to know sooner rather than later. The choice was ultimately mine, but he wanted to propose that suggestion. After talking it over with him for a few minutes, I gave him the green light to tell her. Shortly after he spoke to his wife, she texted me to send her love and support.
  2. After I told my sister about my diagnosis, she helped me prepare my parents so that I could tell them. I live in a different state from my parents, and my sister lives in a different country from the rest of us. She was already visiting them when I found out my news. She prepared them for a phone call from me. She didn’t share my actual news with them, but she let them know it was important. Before talking to them, I specifically told her what she could and could not say prior to my call, and she honored my wishes.
  3. I sent a private message to my former middle school teacher via social media to ask for her prayers. This is before I was more open about my diagnosis with others. After I explained more of my circumstances to her, she identified different areas to include in her prayers as I made decisions about my treatment. I bring her up because she’s not someone that communicates with me frequently. I haven’t met with her in person in decades. Even when we comment on each other’s social media posts, that only happens a few times per year if anything. It goes to show how anyone can be thoughtful in communicating with and supporting a person in a sensitive, challenging situation even when they don’t have the closest relationship.

So that brings me to one of my recent epiphanies. When you are in a situation like mine, you will find that the “closest” people to you are not always the most supportive. It might not be because they don’t want to support you, but they don’t know how. They might have their own issues. They might have the strong intention to support you, but they might not have the skills. They might not have had the opportunity to practice those skills in the past.

If you grew up in a family like mine, you didn’t learn how to talk about issues that were complex, complicated, maddening, saddening, negative, sensitive, and challenging. You generally didn’t talk about cancer with the person who had cancer. Although I knew my aunt had breast cancer when I was a teenager, I never asked her what type of support she needed. In fact, we never mentioned her breast cancer diagnosis when speaking to each other. When I heard about her story through others, it was understood that I was to keep quiet. I was made to feel as if she wouldn’t like it if people reached out to her. If that’s actually true, then I feel fine knowing I had been respecting her wishes. If somehow her story and wishes got filtered in a game of telephone, then I am sorry that I didn’t offer her support when I had the opportunity.

I know what it’s like to want to show love to someone, but not know which ways are most appropriate. That’s why I advocate for direct, clear communication.

Not everyone grows up in a family and/or culture where communication is generally direct, but I have a situation where those familial and/or cultural scripts have to be edited if it’s in the best interest of my health.

For the sake of my health, my life, and my quality of life, I need to make decisions that will enable me to heal and recover.

When a major health issue hits, you are changed, and inevitably so are your relationships.

The night before my surgery, on one of my social media accounts, I posted my thoughts on how a health crisis impacts relationships. I want to end this post by sharing those thoughts with you here:

After my breast cancer diagnosis, a friend told me she was concerned about me because I was going through this “alone.” Really she meant that I was single. I get why she assumed this, but don’t rely on someone’s relationship/marital status to tell you whether or not they’re enduring anything alone. In my survivor circles, I read the story of a breast cancer patient whose husband’s mother had died of breast cancer when he was 11. The cancer patient finally finished her treatment, and days later her husband walked out on her. I can understand how a health crisis either strengthens or breaks any type of relationship—romantic, sexual, platonic, familial, whatever. You get to learn what “love” really means to others and to yourself. While love brings positivity, it’s about more than positivity. Love demands truth, vulnerability, and growth. It is a bitch to learn that your relationships don’t have enough of those ingredients during a crisis. On the flip side, it is so liberating to discover that your relationships do in fact have enough of these ingredients to build love. From now on, I’m all about sending loving thoughts. They’re much more powerful than the most positive thoughts because they actually require loving actions. 💜 💜 💜

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