July 31, 2014

Courage Unmasked supports head and neck cancer patients

Charlie Haller had never smoked or used chewing tobacco and wasn’t a heavy drinker, so the 41-year-old Lyles, Tennessee, man wasn’t thinking about cancer when a mass developed on the side of his neck.

Barbara Murphy, M.D., with patient Charlie Haller, who is receiving treatment for head and neck cancer at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. (photo by Joe Howell)

Charlie Haller had never smoked or used chewing tobacco and wasn’t a heavy drinker, so the 41-year-old Lyles, Tennessee, man wasn’t thinking about cancer when a mass developed on the side of his neck.

His primary care physician, however, immediately referred him to a specialist and a biopsy revealed a form of head and neck cancer that had already invaded soft tissue in Haller’s nasal passage and the base of his tongue.

It was a diagnosis he wasn’t expecting.

“It just goes to show it does strike everybody,” said Haller.

He has already started a chemotherapy regimen at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), and the next step will be 35 sessions of radiation therapy.

Like every patient undergoing radiation to the head and neck region, Haller was fitted for a personalized mask, a plastic mesh contraption that must be heated and pulled tightly over the patient’s face to capture the contours of the head and facial features.

The fitting for the mold takes about 15 minutes, then the mask is cured until it hardens.

The mask is used during each radiation treatment to ensure that the radiation beam is targeting the cancer while sparing healthy tissue nearby.

Personalized radiation therapy masks are part of a special cancer fundraising project called Courage Unmasked. (photo by john Russell)

Haller immediately saw the mask as a tool, perhaps because he uses tools to design automotive repairs in his job as a technical specialist at Nissan U.S.A., but he understands how intimidating the masks look.

“You would think Medieval, like a swordsman and coat of armor and a helmet. I would see where some folks, it would make them nervous,” Haller said.

His medical oncologist, Barbara Murphy, M.D., professor of Medicine and director of Head and Neck Oncology at VICC, said being confined in the mask is traumatic for many patients.

“It molds to the face and patients are bolted to a table. They are by themselves and run through a machine, and this is done up to 30 times or more for treatment,” Murphy said.

Even with a cure, the intensive treatments in such a delicate area can cause severe side effects that often affect speech, swallowing, taste, smell and nutrition.

“In addition to physical side effects, patients may be profoundly affected emotionally and psychologically. Thus the mask becomes highly symbolic for patients,” said Murphy.

More than 60 patients donated their masks for a fundraising project called Courage Unmasked. Each mask is given to a local artist, who crafts a unique design and transforms the mask into a piece of art.

Some of the artists confer with the patient who donated the mask and incorporate details from the patient’s experience into the final design concept.

The first few decorated masks will be unveiled Thursday, Aug. 7, at Miller Piano, with a full display later at Gallery 202, both in Franklin, Tennessee.

The stylized masks will be auctioned during a special Courage Unmasked fundraising event Sept. 27, at OZ, a Nashville arts and events venue. Eventually, the masks will be displayed at the Sarratt Gallery at Vanderbilt.

Funds will benefit the VICC Caring Hearts Fund and will be used for financial support for head and neck cancer patients.

The Nashville shows represent the first time a Courage Unmasked event has been held outside of Washington, D.C.

“The marriage of the cold, scientific device which is a necessary evil to achieve cure with the artists’ interpretation of the experience will be fascinating to see,” said Murphy.

Haller said those who donate are showing a commitment to helping future patients. It’s the same reason he signed up to participate in a clinical research trial.

“This is a way I could help someone else. It’s all voluntary…we need to help other folks, that’s what makes us who we are,” Haller said.

For more information about Courage Unmasked, visit