Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Courage comes in colors

When my radiation treatments ended in March, I walked out of the treatment lab toting a souvenir.

I'm not talking about the side effects from treatment that I'm still dealing with five months later, though I suppose that they are a souvenir badge of my treatments in a twisted sort of way.

I'm talking about the ThermaSplint mask that was molded to the contours of my face for my 33 treatment sessions in February and March. Each visit, before beginning treatment, the radiation techs lowered the mask over my head and locked it into place to keep me from shifting position while the rays were targeting my tumors.

At the conclusion of the final session, the radiation techs ceremoniously presented my mask to me, correctly guessing that I would be jazzed about displaying my mask in my living room.

I placed my mask on top of my television when I got home that night. But it wasn't long before the thing started to give me the creeps whenever I watched my Mary Tyler Moore Show DVDs so I found a place for the mask on the upper shelf of a bookcase in my bedroom.

I don't have any plans for using the mask again, but if you turn on the news one day and hear about a reward being offered for information leading to the capture of a ThermaSplint bandit robbing banks, go ahead and turn me in.

Well, to my surprise I learned that I'm not the only guy in the world with a fetish for ThermaSplint head gear.

A friend just let me know about "Courage Unmasked": a fund-raising event taking place next Wednesday at the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center in Washington, D.C. One hundred artists have transformed radiation masks formerly worn by cancer patients into unique works of art, with proceeds from the event benefiting head and neck patients who are not able to afford radiation treatment for themselves.

Check out this gallery of photos of the Courage Unmasked collection. I hate to play favorites, but I love the Mr. Potato Head vibe that artist Susan Cole created for "Member of the (Medicine) Cabinet" and the whimsy shown in Raymond Van Santen's "The Magic of Courage."

Courage Unmasked just may inspire me to do something fancy to my own ThermaSplint mask, which is a spitting image of its owner, especially the nose. It would make a splendid rhinoceros.

Support Courage Unmasked with a tax deductible donation


  1. Thanks for a lovely write-up! I am one of the artists contributing masks to this event. Making the mask was a moving experience for me, since my mother-in-law went through two radiation treatments before losing a 10-year battle with lung cancer. And now I have a dear friend who also has lung cancer and has undergone radiation treatment - I used his mask for one of my pieces.
    This event is a combination of a brilliant idea (thanks to the unrelenting enthusiasm and perseverance of Cookie Kerxton, a throat cancer survivor), an overwhelming amount of generosity (from the many volunteers and donors involved in the project), and stunning beauty and searing emotion (from the artists' creations).
    Please come to this event if you can. And if you can't, send a check to NCCS (the info is on the Courage Unmasked website) to make a contribution toward our effort to provide funds for folks who can't afford treatment for head and neck cancers.


    Jessica Beels (paper artist and jeweler and creator of two of the masks in the auction)

  2. Hi Jessica

    I just looked at your masks: Brain Teaser and The View from Within. They're beautiful! Thank you for all you do for people with head and neck cancer.


  3. Hi Paul,

    Thank you for your great attitude and fun writing! I really enjoyed reading your blog. You've been through a lot! Good luck with your cycling -- I really admire your perseverance. How's your voice and eating coming along? Congratulations on being declared cancer-free! I'm happy for you that your enjoyment of eating, talking, and singing is coming back!

    The Courage Unmasked event really is an amazing outpouring of goodwill, just as Jessica wrote above. Like you, I'm a survivor of head and neck cancer. I was lucky to be introduced to Cookie Kerxton because we both are treated by the same radiation oncologist. Thus began my work for this campaign, and I also created a mask. Working to help others who aren't as lucky as I am is hugely rewarding. This is my first experience in donating my time, art, and skills to a fundraiser, and I'm loving it. Through Courage Unmasked, I've met and shared stories with so many generous and talented people who simply wouldn't be part of my life if it weren't for this project. Truly, I am grateful for so much.

    Don't know if you ever checked out the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF), but I highly recommend doing so. At their site, you'll find thousands of articles and posts regarding every possible aspect of oral cancer. Since my diagnosis in 2006, I have enjoyed and learned so much from the site. Very inspiring how dedicated that org is to helping OC patients and their families and friends.

    Good luck with your recovery and with all of the health issues you're navigating. I hope that you DO transform your own mask to remind you of how far you've come and to celebrate all of the victories along the way.

    Wishing you many more huge joys in life,
    Carol Kanga

  4. Hiya, Paul. So glad you wrote about this! One of the most clever art exhibits I've come across. Steve Taravella

  5. The mask in this post looks awesome, perfect for a Halloween party, or for just having fun scaring people in the streets at night.