The Confluence Of Body Ink, Cancer, And Spoon Theory


There is an unproven but visible connection between people who struggle with their bodies and people who embrace dermal decoration.

Those of us who find ourselves with bodies out of our control—in my case, a breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 28—tend to carve the mastery of our own bodies into our skin. It's powerful mojo to say 'this is my body, this is what I'm doing to it.' It's part control-freak, part artistry. Which is why I chose to get an emblem of Spoon Theory tattooed on body. 

Spoon Theory was born in a diner, with two best friends. One friend, the healthy one, asked the other to explain what life was like with a chronic medical condition. Using a handful of spoons grabbed from a waitress, the author of the now iconic blog post created a lasting metaphor and neologism for how to explain an invisible illness to someone who might not fully understand. The term has become essential to me and a shorthand I use often. I don't say "I'm out of energy!" I now say I'm out of spoons. It's become such a powerful totem for my reality of living with stage IV metastatic breast cancer, a way to vocalize something that is very hard to explain, that I now vacillate between sad lion and spoon with rainbow tail as my personal emojis. I know, I'm ridiculous. 

Seven years is an exceptionally long time to have cancer. Gone are the days when you get better, or you die. Instead, I look amazing, and sometimes I feel amazing. But sometimes, I feel like a deflated balloon. It was during the latter that I met Karolina in a secret beauty chat room. We bonded immediately over our shared love of figuratively moving into the tub, of the benefits of medicinal marijuana, and of our mutual love of delicate, fine jewelry and Reformation clothes. As we became closer, we went from sliding into each other's DMs, to texting, to eventually spending a week together doing fun things like taking Dena to chemo and then climbing a (small) glacier. After a brief period of blanking out Spoon Theory from my life, Karo, a self-proclaimed Spoonie, brought our shared theory back into my everyday consciousness. It was like the rope being thrown down the tunnel of my sadness. If jealousy is counting someone else's blessings, then Karo reminded me that instead, I'd be better at counting and preserving my spoons. 

So when Karo asked me if I would come to New York with her to get a tattoo, I said yes. And when she asked me if I would get a matching spoon tattoo with her, I said hell yes. 

I quickly dubbed the tattoo the "emergency spoon," envisioning something akin to when spies bury keys or poison pills or other essential mercenary tools in the soft, accessible flesh of the forearm. It would be a little something in reserve, a repository for that time that we think we can't go on. 

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So armed with little more than a deep dive into the artist's instagram, and trust in the six months of research Karo did before, we found ourselves deep in the heart of Flatbush, Brooklyn. It was a steamy, cursed swamp of a day. A sticky, sultry 95 degrees with 200 percent humidity. The building was a building, until we walked trepidatiously into the cavernous, mid-century modern lobby. The surprisingly high ceilings and echoing space magnified into infinity by a circling wall of decoratively framed mirrors. The temperature dropped noticeably. 

We were greeted at the door by a bronzed pixie; skin glowing with health, free of makeup, in an ethereal black linen slip dress that made me instantly wish I was wearing it. Through her airy, elegantly designed space we were led into the home studio. Cleaning supplies were the only tech visible in a space drenched in light from high windows, with green luscious plants overflowing from a window box, and a soft, fluffy bed pressed against a more formal tattoo table. 


We talked and we laughed, and the artist drew onto tissue paper with stunning alacrity, deftly using negative space to create tiny, dimensional designs. Once all the details were decided, she carefully cut the carbon transfer paper (tissue crinkling against the ink sheet) to place the design on our skin. 

And so we sat and we talked some more. We spoke of artistry, inspiration, innovation, and iteration. We talked about being Spoonies in the most beautiful and positive way. I opened the well-worn Cleo Wade book on the bedside to a random poem and read it aloud. The words spoke to something I had been struggling with in a way that was downright spooky. 

The nausea I had been suffering from that morning melted away. Karo and I giggled over how it wasn't even painful (something you learn as a Spoonie is that all pain is relative, and we can handle a lot.) The artist made impossibly delicate strokes with her rose gold encased needle in our skin. It looked like nothing so much as a magic wand. 

When it was over, my skin warm and glowing with heat, I felt like someone who would admit to the internet that there was something magic inside the tattoo.

A little bit of energy, the kind that comes from a memory so beautiful, that every single time you think about it, it soothes your frazzled nerves and elevates your mood. A little Ativan buried in my skin, which I can release just by touching the little spoon on my arm and thinking about this special day.