“I want them to live again to the point where pain becomes art.”
Lawrence Durrell, “Justine”
I have always loved masks. Near sighted likely from birth, a fact which was discovered significantly later, I never minded stumbling around our neighborhood on Halloween, my already deficient depth perception further stunted by my Bugs Bunny mask. To don a mask was a chance to become someone else, and as I grew older my disguises became more exotic—a gypsy fortune teller with gold hoop earrings in high school, a Turkish harem girl in college. My imagination, fueled by the old stories of the Venetian Carnivale dating back to 1162, knew no bounds, and I secretly dreamed of a masked ball where I would glide gracefully and soundlessly, recognizing and being recognized by a handsome prince, by touch and scent alone.
In 2002 I took the occasion of my daughter’s graduation from high school as an opportunity for us to visit Venice, and more specifically, the mask shop known as La Bottega dei Mascareri at the base of the famous Rialto Bridge where a lively market persists to this day. Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have been speaking metaphorically when she said, “the soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise,” but I was subject to a more literal interpretation. I wanted to buy a mask from the famous brothers Sergio and Massimo Boldrin, who fashion papier mache masks in the old Venetian tradition. I picked out a good one, made by Massimo himself, and given the history it depicts—perfect for a doctor.
The mask is larger than my face and flat, hand painted with a crackle glaze to look very old, and it pictures a man in medieval clothing dancing around a bonfire, wearing the peculiar bird beaked mask known to physicians of the plague years. The beaks were stuffed with medicinal herbs thought to ward off the dread disease. In just one scene, the mask depicts the horror of bubonic plague—the bird beaked man, the fire to burn the contaminated bodies and clothing, the “ring around the rosie” cheeks of the afflicted. With some difficulty, I brought my prize home in a suitcase, only to find that it gave me nightmares. Today it sits on a bookshelf in the study off our garage. I can’t have it in the house.
My patients with head and neck cancer are all too familiar with the concept of the mask, but for them the mask has a different significance. Fashioned of a material called Aquaplast, the mask starts as a thick sheet of perforated plastic. Warmed in a hot water bath, the material becomes soft and pliable, and is stretched over the cancer patient’s head and shoulders where it shape shifts to appear like a woman’s fish net stocking, but without the softness. The mask hardens to become a rigid immobilization device which is bolted to the treatment table. In my field, precision is everything and the mask, custom made for each patient, allows the radiation oncologist to accurately target the cancer while sparing critical structures such as the spinal cord and the eyes. Not for the claustrophobic, the mask is a temporary prison for seven weeks of daily treatment. At the end of treatment, each patient is offered the opportunity to take his or her own mask home. Most actually do.
Today at the biannual Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Symposium in Scottsdale, AZ, I saw something quite extraordinary. In order to assist patients financially with these cancers, an organization out of Washington DC called 911 4 HNC mounted an exhibition called “Courage Unmasked” (www.courageunmasked.org). Cookie Kerxton, an artist who was treated for head and neck cancer herself enlisted other artists to transform radiation masks into works of art. The results, several of which are on exhibit at the meeting, are objects of exceptional beauty, turning human suffering into inspiration and hope for others.
At the meeting, volunteers were handing out free posters depicting forty two of these beautiful masks. When I get home, I will have my poster framed and I will hang it in the room where I examine my head and neck cancer patients. I am hoping that the bright colors of the beautiful masks will lessen their fear, and transform their pain. There is indeed great progress in the treatment of their cancers.