Radiation Mask Art

My Radiation Mask

Oral cancer patients going through radiation wear a mask.  It’s not one I ever want to wear again.  It fit so tightly that my eyes were pressed shut and my skin popped out from the mesh holes leaving an impression for 30 minutes after treatment.

The mask was marked with x’s so the radiation beams were lined up precisely.  There was a hole at the mouth and a gauze enwrapped tongue depressor was secured to keep my tongue in position. You can’t tell, but it was thick enough to keep my upper jaw out of the line of radiation.  It was a challenge not to gag!

It was a dehumanizing experience, one I don’t want to remember, but it saved my life….how could I just throw it out? When the radiation therapist asked me if I wanted to keep my mask, I said yes, with hesitation.  It sat in the corner of my office.  I glanced at it frequently as I was piecing my life back together.

I felt like I couldn’t completely heal without doing something with it.  I needed closure and it came in the form of art.  Colorful electric wires were attached to the mesh signifying the ‘radiation fry.’  A corroded license plate represents my throat and neck.  A piece of drift wood modeled my worn out, withered-with-harsh-conditions body.

I felt imprisoned while going through treatment so I put jail bars in the art, in between which I copied and pasted notes from cards I received from friends and their words of courage, strength and friendship.  At my ‘Celebration of Life Party,’ I asked all my special friends to sign the frame.  I couldn’t have gotten through those treatments without being surrounded by friends and family.

I took the art work to a few lectures long ago, as a visual, but today I simply show this picture in a slide. Today, 14 years later, I have the Radiation Mask Art, but it resides in my basement collecting dust.  I still can’t throw it out.  

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Comments 7

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    Dr. Eric Manheimer came to identify with his patients not just as their doctor, but as one of them, when he underwent radiation treatment for throat cancer. He said this about his mask: “A Hannibal Lecter-type mask was fitted to my face and bolted to a metal table below me to deliver radiation treatment. You’re aware of life going on around you and you’re just there, by yourself. In between treatments, the mask, labeled MANHEIMER, E., hung on a shelf along with dozens of others, like fencing masks. Seven weeks later, miserable from the treatment, I wanted to discontinue it and allow myself to die. It was like gradually going into a black hole and going further and further away from everybody around me. My wife insisted I go on, and saved my life.”

    Dr Manheimer is back to work saving others lives. The radiation has restricted his swallowing. “It feels like a dog’s leash around your neck all the time,” he said.

  2. Could you please furnish me the nsme(s) who could paint my radiation mask. Thank you.

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      Hi Alan, I contacted the organization and currently they have more masks than they have artists to design them. Perhaps, you can nurture your own creativity and express your feelings through creating your mask as art. What do you think? A challenge?

  3. My radiation mask is very dry and brittle and it falls in pieces from the touch of my hands. I want to preserve it, especially before it ages and falls apart entirely. Will you please explain how your mask was preserved and kept from falling apart? Thank you for sharing your story.

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      My mask fell apart!!! I had to discard it because the plastic fragments were making a mess. I took photos of the piece of art I made out of it, and that is all I have now. Where are you keeping your mask? In a closet?

  4. I only had 10 treatments but it was pure hell! When I would walk in the clinic and they would ask, ‘where you are headed?’ My answer: Chinese torture. They laughed. Doesn’t take much to make a nurse laugh. I will decorate my mask with the words: CANCER, Cut, Poison, Burn! But I will try to make it bright and some how cheery!

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