The Spoon Theory Helps Me Deal With Life After Cancer

Read below how one cancer fighter’s “Spoon Theory” helped a survivor understand her side effects better.

I recently finished reading "Furiously Happy," a hilarious book written by Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess. Lawson writes openly about her physical and mental ailments. In one of her essays, she wrote about the Spoon Theory, and it was like I was hit with a bolt of lightning—someone had put into words what I had been struggling to explain to others for five years.

The Spoon Theory is this—you have only so many spoons to get through your day. When you’re healthy, your spoon supply seems unlimited—it doesn’t "cost" you that many spoons to get through your day from the moment you wake up until the time you go to bed. When you’re sick, your spoon supply becomes limited. This theory is typically applied to chronic illness, or to the idea of “but you don’t look sick.” I think, though, this theory applies whether you’re going through cancer treatment for a short period of time, a prolonged treatment time, or, ultimately, dealing with a chronic illness.

The first chemotherapy regimen I underwent in 2011 didn’t leave me looking like I had cancer. My hair thinned a little, and I actually gained a little weight because I was on steroids. But my energy level tanked.

At first, I tried to maintain my lifestyle—running, lunch or dinner with friends, running errands, trying to cram as much as I could into the day. That lasted about one month until I realized I was wearing myself down in conjunction with what the chemo was doing.

Without having a name for it at the time, I had to start using my spoons wisely. I typically had enough energy to do one thing each day—take a shower, or go to Target, or go to lunch with a friend—but I couldn’t do all three. The thing with the spoons is that every task, every action requires a spoon. Wake up and fix breakfast, one spoon; take a shower, one spoon; get dressed, one spoon; dry my hair, one spoon; and so on. Maybe you wake up one morning and you feel like you have six spoons to spend on the day, but once you use those six spoons, you’re out. You become choosy about how you use those spoons during the day.

I let my spoons go by the wayside for the next couple of years following my first chemo regimen as I continued to undergo tougher chemo and radiation regimens that left me with zero spoons each day. Well, maybe I had two spoons—one for getting out of bed and moving to the sofa, and a second spoon for going to bed at night.

We left our home for a total of nine months between July 2013 and July 2014 for treatment out of state. When we returned home, I brought home a chronic illness—end stage renal failure. Again, from the outside I didn’t necessarily look sick, but I was weak and needed a considerable amount of help.

I was back to counting spoons. I became even stingier with how I spent my spoons. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I had to go to a clinic for dialysis. Just getting to and from dialysis used all my spoons for the day. Those days, I was left with no spoons for myself or my husband. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends I had a couple of extra spoons, but not many. I was back to choosing the one thing I would do that day, usually lunch with a friend. But sometimes just getting ready to go to lunch would use up my spoons so I was forced to either cancel on my friend or have them bring lunch to me while I recuperated on the sofa.

I’ve switched the type of dialysis I do, which has given me a few more spoons to get through my day, but I’m still picky about how I use them. During the past five years of cancer treatment and now end stage kidney failure, I’ve learned to slow down and be particular about how I spend my time and expend my energy. I find that I still sometimes struggle to say no, and I sometimes do too much in one day; when that happens, I’ve learned to slow down the following day and take time for the rest I need to recharge.

What was your spoon count during treatment? Talk about it in the comments below!