When offered to keep the form-fitting plastic mask used during their radiation treatments, most head and neck cancer patients decline. Few want a memento of the time spent wearing the mask, lying bolted to a medical table and unable to move their upper body.
Keeping the head and neck still ensures precision by technicians performing the therapy. But "that mask can be torture," said Dr. Ted Teknos, chair of head and neck oncologic surgery at The Ohio State University Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. "Most patients absolutely despise those masks. As soon as radiation is over, they don't care if they ever see one of those for the rest of their lives."
Now, the masks have been chosen as a symbol to raise awareness-and research money-for head and neck cancer, which can attack the throat, larynx, mouth, nose and sinuses.
A collective of artists, most of them from Columbus, recently transformed 25 radiation masks into works of art for a local exhibit titled "Courage Unmasked for Joan's Fund." The exhibit will be shown March 26 at the Columbus Arts Ball, and is part of a broader fundraising campaign by The Joan Levy Bisesi Foundation for Head and Neck Oncology Research.
"What we're wanting to do is start to create the awareness about a different form of cancer that is debilitating, horrendous and deadly, and needs research dollars," said Melinda Fenholt Cogley, the foundation's executive director and a cancer survivor herself.
The exhibit-inspired by a similar display in Washington, D.C.-will travel to several local venues throughout the year, with a final showing at a gala and auction in October.
Proceeds from the auction will go to Joan's Fund, an endowment that raises money for research at The James.
The artists who participated in the project were paired with head and neck cancer survivors, so each mask crafted for the exhibit tells a unique story. The materials used vary as much as the artistic styles, from colorful textiles and paints to clay and glass mosaics.
"We wanted the artist to have the story of the survivor rattling around in his or her head while creating the masks," Fenholt Cogley said. "And we also let every artist know, 'We want this to be a mask that expresses courage and hope.' "
The process was an emotional one for many of the artists, including Sandy Reddig, a portrait artist who lives in Grove City.
A theme for Reddig's mask emerged during conversations with oral cancer survivor Harry Grzeskowiak, with whom she was paired.
"Harry is a man of faith, and he just kept weaving this analogy of his walk through stars," Reddig said. "His nurses were 'stars,' his doctors were 'stars,' and his wife and family were 'stars.' "
She decorated her piece, called "Stars, So Many Stars-Journey at the James," with shimmering stars and rosary beads.
Artist Jim Arter of Columbus crafted a stained-glass window around Helga Johnson's mask to capture her passion for nature and meditation. He also incorporated Johnson's love of Native American flute music by inserting a CD player inside the mask that plays soothing songs.
As Johnson opened up to Arter, the two discovered some unexpected similarities.
"I, too, walk in nature. I, too, use meditative music," Arter said. "There were a lot of connections."
The partnerships proved therapeutic for survivors who battled a cancer that can dramatically alter the way they look, speak and eat.
The most gratifying part for Joan Zeller, a sculptor from Worthington, was watching survivor Renee Bean's reaction when she shared her artwork.
"I could so tell that it had resonated with her," Zeller said. "Taking that mask that she could barely look at, and not having that strong negative reaction-I really do think was a huge transformation for her in completing that process."
Head and Neck Cancer The Science
Tobacco and alcohol have long been considered risk factors for head and neck cancer, but newer research has shown that the human papilloma virus (HPV) also poses a risk, said Dr. Ted Teknos of Ohio State. HPV, which is spread by sexual contact, can cause cancer of the mouth through oral sex. "I think as a public-health issue, there's a lot of interest paid to HPV," he said. "Because the incidence is going up, and it tends to be younger, healthier, non at-risk individuals."
• A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
• A lump on the lip or in the mouth or neck
• A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth
• Unusual bleeding, pain or numbness of the mouth
• A sore throat or a persistent feeling that something is caught in the throat
• Difficultly or pain with chewing or swallowing
• A change in voice or hoarseness
• Pain in the ear
• Slurred speech
• Loose teeth
• Unintended weight loss
Joan's Fund A young mother's memory lives on through a fundraising effort benefiting cancer research
Joan Levy Bisesi's battle with cancer began with a stubborn sore on her tongue.
Her doctor thought it was a canker sore and treated it with antibiotics, but it didn't go away. So a dentist friend examined Bisesi and convinced her to see an oral surgeon. A biopsy revealed cancerous tumors, a life-altering diagnosis for the seemingly-healthy
29-year-old. Doctors removed a portion of her tongue during Bisesi's first surgery in 1996.
"She had a really wonderful attitude," said her mother, Lee Levy. "She was very brave and very courageous-didn't ask for pity."
After her recovery, Joan returned to her job in Bank One's training department and fell in love with and married Phil Bisesi in 1999. The two had just returned from a trip to Italy the following year when Joan's doctor discovered that her cancer had reappeared.
The second round of treatment was intense, involving a tracheotomy and the removal of part of her jaw. While undergoing radiation therapy, Joan made another surprising discovery-this one happy: She was pregnant.
The baby was due Nov. 9, 2001. But as Joan awaited the arrival, she learned that her cancer had returned a third time, and she needed yet another surgery. For the safety of the baby, doctors advised her to deliver early. Her daughter, Mira, arrived healthy.
Joan's health, however, worsened. She died when her daughter was 10 weeks old.
Joan's Fund was established to honor her memory-and a wish she made in her last months for friends and family to send donations for cancer research in lieu of flowers and cards.
The fund has since raised nearly $700,000 for The James.
Joan's mother introduced the idea for a local "Courage Unmasked" exhibit after connecting with Cookie Kerxton, a cancer survivor and artist who organized the first exhibition of radiation masks at the Katzen Art Center in Washington, D.C., in 2009.
The community's support and enthusiasm for "Courage Unmasked for Joan's Fund" has been gratifying.
"You never let go," Lee Levy said. "But you need to move on and do something that you think will be worthwhile."
Masks featured in the "Courage Unmasked" exhibit will be auctioned at a gala event planned for Oct. 21.
For more information, visit JoansFund.org.