Radiation masks find new purpose thanks to 911 4 HNC artists

One cancer survivor and artist has found a way to turn a painful memory into something more beautiful.

Cookie Kerxton, who resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland, spent five weeks undergoing radiation therapy for vocal cord cancer in 2008. For each 15-minute treatment, she wore the same stiff, custom-fitted radiation mask secured to a table to limit her movement so the treatment was as precise as possible.

Although most patients leave their masks behind after treatment, she decided to transform used ones into works of art. Art has long been an outlet for Kerxton, who also spent numerous years teaching arts and crafts in a hospital’s inpatient psychiatric unit.

One year after her diagnosis, she founded the nonprofit 911 4 HNC, which stands for “help for head and neck cancer.” She found other local artists, some of whom had relatives fighting cancer and others who had no relationship with the disease, interested in volunteering their time to turn used masks collected from hospitals into various creations.

Since 2009, Kerxton and her team have found a new purpose for more than 260 masks. The artists take their own liberties with their creations. Masks—which have no radiation left on them—have been turned into animals, faces, mythical creatures and abstract objects.

“You give the same exact thing, and [the artists] come up with all these incredible pieces of work,” Kerxton said.

Kerxton and her team have organized several fundraisers, including four art shows called Courage Unmasked, exhibiting the artists’ handiwork. The most recent show was last June. Sale prices for the transformed masks have ranged from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars each. The proceeds funded more than 500 grants, totaling $300,000, for patients and survivors in the Washington, DC, area. Recipients can use the money however they see fit.

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