Unmasked, Cancer Survivors Face The Symbol Of Their Torture


In Nashville this weekend, there's an exhibition of masks, not the kind that are used to hide, disguise or play dress-up. These have been worn by people with head or neck cancer. The plastic and mesh masks are used during radiation treatment and they're molded precisely to a patient's face. Over the course of their treatment, cancer patients form intense relationships with these ghostly-white likenesses of themselves. Emily Siner from member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

EMILY SINER, BYLINE: Every 15 minutes for 10 hours a day, patients walk into the radiation room at Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center. They pick up their mask, walk to a machine and lie down underneath. Nurses fit the mask over the patient's face and shoulders and then snap it down.


BARBARA BLADES: It was awful. 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: I can remember laying their thinking that I'm glad that I'm not claustrophobic.

BOB MEAD: I sort of fibbed to myself. I thought if I really had to, I could sit up and pull the mask off.

SINER: That's Barbara Blades, who was diagnosed with cancer in her lymph nodes and her tongue; Oscar Simmons, who had cancer in his tonsils; and Bob Mead, who had salivary gland cancer. Mead really could not have pulled up his mask. It's designed to restrain a patient so that the radiation targets the exact same spots every day down to the millimeter. It's made of a kind of white, plastic mesh that forms to a patient's face. It's see-through but it looks almost human, like a ghostly person frozen in place. Steve Travis had tumors on his throat and neck and went through several weeks of radiation. He says the treatment didn't bother him at first.

STEVE TRAVIS: Honestly, when I was under the mask, I actually found it comforting. I used that to say Our Fathers and Hail Marys. And when it was over, it was over. After it was over, I became very angry at the mask because it sort of represented everything that had happened over the last, you know, four months. And so I destroyed it.

SINER: He took it out to a family farm in West Tennessee and set it up next to a tree. He shot at with two magazines from a 45 automatic. And then, for good measure, he burned it.

BLADES: I kept it for the longest time, and it just sat there.

SINER: That's Barbara Blades, the woman with tongue cancer.

BLADES: And I couldn't bring myself to throw it away because I had radiation five days a week for seven weeks. It was a part of me for that amount of time.

SINER: Blades ended up keeping the radiation mask in her garage. She finally threw it out after it was damaged during a flood four years ago. Bob Mead, who had salivary gland cancer, held onto his mask with a sense of pride.

MEAD: It's shaped like me. It fits me. It's like a favorite pair of jeans. People may not think of a mask that fondly, but there's a familiarity to it. But the mask is actually part of me, and it's that badge of honor that I have survived what is believed to have killed my cancer.

SINER: Oscar Simmons, who had tonsil cancer, gave his mask to an artist who turned it into a sculpture of a mountain with a whole landscape around it.

SIMMONS: Its goal is to restrain and they're going to expand. And so it's a thing of contrasts I guess.

SINER: As for Mead's mask, he still hasn't decided what to do with it.

MEAD: Mines actually sitting in my sun porch on a shelf.

SINER: Every once in a while, he says, he'll pick it up and put it on his face. It still fits. And that's OK, he says, because now he's free to take it off. For NPR News in Nashville, I'm Emily Siner.

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