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This article originally appeared in Artsy Editorial on January 18, 2018.

In a Baltimore basement, behind foot-thick walls, there is a room, and in that room there is a table. Every morning, Monday through Friday for seven weeks, my dad entered the room at 7:40 a.m. sharp. I accompanied him there on a few occasions, sitting outside in the waiting room as the door closed behind him. A minute or two would pass, followed by a barely audible buzz, then the door would slide open again and he’d walk out, another radiation treatment X’d off the calendar.

My dad’s experience in that room, one of many in the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, will be familiar to other throat cancer patients. A radiation technician bolted him down to the table with the help of a white mesh mask perfectly molded to the contours of his face. Wrapped tightly around his head and neck, the bizarre-looking armature ensured that powerful radiation beams targeted his cancer in the exact same position each session, even as his skin deteriorated and his body mass dropped.

Before his first treatment, he had been measured and fitted for his own custom mask. Plastic mesh was draped over his face until it hardened, forming a new face—what some patients call their second skin. For my dad, the object came to symbolize something, just as it symbolizes something for me, our family, and for the countless other people who have survived or helped someone survive head and neck cancer, or HNC.

My dad isn’t exactly the sentimental type, but on his last day of radiation, he rang the bell—a rite of passage for patients who make it through treatment—put the mask in his car trunk, and took it home.

Just as cancers and treatments are unique, however, the meaning of the mask is unique to every patient and to every person who comes into contact with it. Among those searching for that meaning are hundreds of artists, some of them survivors themselves, who have transformed radiation masks into works of art that seek to capture, or at least confront, the struggle and, for the lucky ones, the survival of HNC.

Groups across the U.S. and other parts of the world have come together to create new lives for these masks. One such group, Courage Unmasked, has, through a series of auctions and books, shown off an incredible array of masks, all while raising awareness of HNC and funds for patients in need.

Courage Unmasked is the brainchild of Cookie Kerxton, an artist and HNC survivor. In 2009, Kerxton felt lucky. She was fortunate to have had the finances and good health to survive her radiation treatment for cancer of the vocal cords. As Kerxton convalesced, she realized that not everyone is quite so lucky. Some HNC patients face a permanent loss of saliva, destroyed taste buds, digestive issues, and an inability to talk, eat, swallow, or breathe. And when it comes to the cost of covering incidentals like specialty foods, commuting, and the many small but crucial steps toward recovery, health insurance is often insufficient.

Kerxton had an idea. She inquired at the treatment center about the leftover radiation masks, the ghostly white shells of former patients. With permission from the center’s radiation therapists, she took home the discarded masks and called upon her artist friends to help transform them into works of art. She then auctioned off the finished objects, using the proceeds to support HNC patients by sending applicants a $500 check through a Maryland-based nonprofit called 9114HNC (Help for Head and Neck Cancer).

Since the first Courage Unmasked event in 2009, held at American University’s Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C.—which featured 108 masks, decorated by more than 100 artists—other such events have followed, each raising more money for 9114HNC.

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Reposted with permission of Ryan Leahey of Artsy and Cookie Kerxton of Courage Unmasked.

Photo credit by Cookie Kerxton of Courage Unmasked.

 

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