How a Utah nonprofit is using tattoos to help cancer warriors
When Carly Pace was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2019, she never thought that something good could come from having cancer.
At just 28, she was suddenly faced with decisions like how to pay for mounting medical bills and whether to do in vitro fertilization to prepare for the permanent impact chemo could have on her reproductive health.
"I feel like I was so naive about cancer. I knew that it was a thing, but then I kind of did that thing where it's like, 'Well, that will never happen to me,'" Pace said. "And then all of a sudden, you're like, 'This is a lot.'"
Shortly after her diagnosis, a family friend introduced Pace to Ink Against Cancer, a local nonprofit that provides a financial safety net for cancer warriors and boosts their spirits. Pace quickly realized that introduction meant an open invitation into a tight-knit, supportive community of cancer warriors and their families.
"I think once you're like in it, you're just part of the Ink Against Cancer family at that point," said Pace, who has been in remission for almost two years. "They were there for every single step of chemo, surgery and everything that has come after that. I just could not have asked for a better group of people to be introduced to and receive extra support from ... just knowing that people are thinking about you — it's really weird to say that there are good things that come from cancer."
Hildegard and Jay Koenig co-founded Ink Against Cancer as fulfillment of a promise to their late friend, "Wolf," who died from cancer in 2017. The husband-and-wife duo had tapped into their connections in the music and tattoo industries to organize an event and help raise funds for Wolf's medical and hospice expenses.
"When he was passing away, he asked me to continue this in his memory," Hildegard Koenig said. "He was my little brother. Anything that happened in his life, he would call us."
Since then, the Koenigs have organized annual events where tattoo artists and other vendors donate their time and talents to raise money for Ink Against Cancer families, who are screened through an application process. The nonprofit has gone from supporting 10 families to over 70.
"We're very humble about this, because we still kind of run this out of our front room," Jay Koenig said. "You could say we're the Aflac (insurance) of Make-a-Wish. We can't do the huge stuff, but we fill in the cracks here and there. That's the hardest thing, when people are going through cancer, is just the little necessities ... any side of it that we can try to help make it a little easier for them, we try to do that."
That help ranges from financial assistance for things like rent, funeral expenses or groceries, to gifting cancer warriors wigs or tickets to concerts and professional sports games. In one instance, Ink Against Cancer set up a private backyard luau for a family whose Make-a-Wish trip to Hawaii was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"You have your own struggles, but when you see that family being able to have a smile or have peace of mind, that's our reward," the Koenigs said. "It's very important to us. We want people to know that if they're like, 'I'm giving you my last $5' or 'I'm giving you my money,' that it is truly going to those families."
Kahea Benitez-Kauo found out she had breast cancer and thyroid cancer just a month before her cousin passed away from cancer. Both women were able to receive support from Ink Against Cancer. Things like sending a check for money Benitez-Kauo needed up front to see a specialist, or bringing her son Christmas presents have gone a long way, she said.
"Any time if I ever need anything, or if I just need someone to talk to, they are people who I can just reach out to. They've been there for me emotionally and then financially secondary. When you're going through this, I think anything helps," Benitez-Kauo said. "More than anything, you try to not derail the lives of your family so much, but it's inevitable, right? So they've just been there to help us with whatever we need."
Benitez-Kauo's sister, Kalei Herbert, said Ink Against Cancer doesn't just focus on the individual with cancer but on the warrior's siblings, parents and kids as well.
"As an older sister, you always want to protect your little sister. To watch my best friend and younger sister have such a big, life-changing diagnosis, it was really hard," she said. "They would reach out to me and make sure that things were OK and also if we needed anything. Anytime that I posted stuff on Instagram, they're the first ones to comment and cheer us on as a family. I think that was very special of them. They don't forget who you are and they don't forget the family members as well."
Jay Koenig said it's been amazing to witness the community that's grown to support cancer warriors and their families — large corporations like the Utah Grizzlies and Amazon, artists like the Piano Guys and Bret Michaels, as well as individual tattoo artists and donors and even cancer warriors themselves.
"It just made us realize how small the world really is, as far as who knows who and how well it's fallen into place," Jay Koenig said. "There's usually somebody down on a trickling end somewhere that may have a contact to be able to help out. So the bigger that we've been able to spread our blanket, the more help we've been able to give as well as establish more of an overall family, if you will, with all of the people that have helped out and that we've been able to help."
Miles Tolman, who has been battling testicular cancer since September 2020, says the Ink Against Cancer team inspired him to start his own pressure-washing company. Not only has the company allowed him to support his family as his medical bills depleted the family's savings, but he also donates a portion of all his proceeds to Ink Against Cancer.
"I honestly don't know what we would have done without them. They've changed my life in more ways than one. Just seeing all the good that they've done makes me want to do even more," Tolman said. "I used to be really in shape and now I'm just a stick of a man, but having the motivation that Ink provides, just seeing everything they do and hearing the other cancer warriors' journey pushes me forward."
The Koenigs say their events are family-friendly, despite the negative perceptions that sometimes exist around tattoos. Alcohol isn't allowed, tattoos are limited to patrons 18 and older and any musical performers are asked not to swear. There are also henna, temporary tattoos and other activities for kids. The event has expanded to other art forms, too, besides tattoos.
"There's still somewhat of a perception when you see somebody that's heavily tattooed, that they're a heathen or this, that and the other thing. There's still a little bit of that standoffishness. I get it all the time myself. But those are usually the biggest teddy bears," Jay Koenig said. "There's usually a reason somebody's tattooed up so much, not just because they're delinquent or anything else. With all the perception that we get, we always turn around to the positive side saying this is all to go to help benefit cancer warriors."
The duo said they hope these kinds of events change the conversation and offer a space that people from all backgrounds can enjoy.
"It's all inclusive, and sadly cancer is, too," Jay Koenig said. "We open it up to everybody. It comes from the heart. People that truly want to help and truly see the good out of this — it doesn't matter what religion or race what anything you are, you come and support."