The most powerful part of this story is hearing the cancer survivors talking about their experiences. We recommend pressing play rather than reading — and then scrolling down to see pictures of art made from radiation masks.
Every 15 minutes, for 10 hours a day, patients walks into a radiation room in the basement of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. They pick up their mask. Walk to a machine. Lie down underneath.
The masks are made of hard, white plastic and shaped exactly to the patient’s face and shoulders. Radiation therapists* fit them, and then, they snap them down.
“It was awful,” says Barbara Blades, who was diagnosed with cancer in her lymph nodes and tongue nine years ago. “It was awful to have your head bolted to a table. Not being able to move. Not being able to move your head.”
Oscar Simmons had cancer in his tonsils. “I remember laying there thinking, ‘I’m glad I’m not claustrophobic,’ ” he says.
“I sort of fibbed to myself. I thought, if I really had to, I could sit up and pull the mask up,” says Bob Mead, who was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer in 2011.
Mead later realized he could not have pulled up his mask. It was designed to restrain his head so that the radiation targeted the exact same spots, down to the millimeter, over several weeks.
Other survivors say it felt safe in there: The treatment was helping fight their cancer.
“Honestly, when I was under the mask, I found it comforting,” says Steve Travis, who had a tumor on the base of his throat and another on his neck. He used the 15 minutes a day to pray.
But when Travis finished treatment, he became angry at the mask. “It sort of represented everything that had happened for the last four months,” he says. “So I destroyed it.”
He took it out to a family farm in West Tennessee and set it next to a tree. Then he took aim with a shotgun. “Two magazines from a 45 automatic,” he says. “And then, I burned it.”
Travis didn’t hate his radiation mask, he says. He just wanted closure from the cancer.
‘Laughing In The Face Of Cancer’
Everything else that’s used to fight head and neck cancer — the needles, the machines, the IV bags hanging on poles — they’re so generic. But the mask? It’s personal, says Mead. It’s literally his face.
“It’s shaped like me. It fits me,” he says. “It’s like a favorite pair of jeans. People might not think of a mask that fondly, but there’s a familiarity to it.”
During his radiation, he saw a picture of a mask that had been covered in yarn and turned into a sculpture of a Bengal tiger. It was part of an art project that began Washington D.C. five years ago called Courage Unmasked. It was a revelation, he says.
“OK, cancer, you made me have to wear this mask. But guess what? I’m going to turn it into art,” Mead says. “It’s laughing in the face of cancer. It’s kicking cancer in the ass.”
Mead’s oncologist at Vanderbilt, Dr. Ken Niermann, says Mead started talking about bringing the Courage Unmasked project to Nashville while he was still going through radiation treatment.
“He was thinking, ‘How can we do something positive about this?’ ” Niermann says.
On a recent weekday, Niermann was talking to a new cancer patient, Larry Stinnett, who was waiting to get a mask made.
“You may feel a personal connection to the masks,” Niermann told him. “Some of my patients take them home and save them. Hang them up on the wall.”
“As a reminder,” Stinnett said.
“As a reminder.”
‘A Thing Of Contrasts’
Niermann pulled out a poster from the Courage Unmasked project in Washington. Stinnett’s eyes grew wide as he found a mask that had been painted to look like a cat.
Niermann now always shows his patients pictures of the artwork, he says. “I think they’re really turned on by the fact that this mask, this object, which has been part of their struggle, can be turned into something beautiful.”
Mead’s plan to organize a Courage Unmasked project in Nashville was successful: About 60 masks will be shown off at a charity gala at the end of the month.
Oscar Simmons — the man with tonsil cancer — gave his mask to an artist who made it look like a mountain and built a lush abstract landscape around it. Simmons says he wanted to see his mask transformed.
“Its goal is to restrain, and they’re going to expand,” he says. “It’s a thing of contrasts.”
As for Bob Mead’s mask, he actually hasn’t donated it to the Courage Unmasked project he organized. He was holding on to it in case there were more artists than patients — that wasn’t the case — and he’s trying to decide if there’s something else he’d rather do with it.
For now, it’s sitting on a shelf in his sun porch. Every once in a while, he’ll pick it up and put it on his face. It still fits. But that’s OK, he says, because now, he’s free to take it off.
*Correction: This story previously referred to radiation therapists as nurses.
From Cancer To Art
The first photo in this series is Oscar Simmons’ radiation mask, transformed by artist Patrick McIntosh. For privacy reasons, we were not given the identities of who the other masks belonged to.
Some of these masks will be auctioned off at the Courage Unmasked charity gala Sept. 27. Click on the photo to see the artist’s name. The masks with a white background were photographed by Jerry Atnip.
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