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.