Take Charge

Patty's Story: How She Became 'Great Friends' With Her Radiation Mask

April 20, 2017

mary-mask-640.jpg To get over her discomfort during radiation, Patty became "friends" with her radiation mask, even naming her Mary.

Patty was diagnosed with multiple cancers due to an inherited genetic predisposition. After completing radiation therapy, she had her radiation face mask painted and discovered that it changed her outlook about the treatment. We had a chance to sit down with Patty and ask about her story and experiences at Moffitt.

When were you diagnosed with your first cancer?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, with pancreatic cancer in 2012, and then with thyroid cancer in 2014.

Patty and family
Patty, surrounded by her family.

What went through your mind when you first received your diagnosis of pancreatic cancer?

Hearing three different times that I had cancer, I think I dealt with it better than my family did. I had to tell my husband and kids that I had cancer again. To have no disease or health problems for 45 years, and then to be diagnosed with cancer three times in seven years - it was crazy. I thought this couldn’t be possible. It was difficult but every time I heard those words “you have cancer,” I found more strength and courage within myself.

What were your fears and concerns about receiving radiation and being in the radiation machine?

Radiation sounded easier than chemotherapy at the time but turned out to be more difficult. When I arrived for my radiation simulation, Dr. Sarah Hoffe was there and she said that we were going to get this started right away. The next thing I knew I was laying on the treatment table and getting fitted for a radiation mask. That’s when I kind of freaked out. 

Radiation mask
Patty's radiation mask, above, and after it was painted, below.

I said I didn’t think that I could do this. It was so uncomfortable. I asked, “Do you mean to tell me that when I start treatment next week, I’m going to have to wear this face mask every day during treatment?” Dr. Hoffe gave me a prescription to relax but I still had problems. I was taking the medication and trying to relax each time I went in for treatment. But after a few sessions had passed, I began to look at everyone else’s masks on the wall of the treatment room and thought, if everyone else is doing this why can’t I?

While I was clamped to the table and hearing the jarring sounds of the treatment machine, I closed my
eyes, imagined my mask, and named it Mary. I talked to her, asking her things like, “did you talk to the other masks today?” I thought, “she is saving my life.” As I continued talking to Mary during each of my sessions, I began to realize that my treatment seemed to go by more quickly. I befriended her. My treatment was difficult, my skin would get raw and blistered and my voice became hoarse. But my only concern was how was I going to get through it.

Painted radiation mask

How did you first come up with the idea to paint your mask?

The mask had been sitting in my living room for a couple of weeks after treatment when I got the idea to have it painted. I have a friend whose daughter is a great artist. When I looked at my mask, I thought that I had to do something with it to help others. We had seen online that some people keep their radiation masks and decorate them with flowers and such. As difficult as treatment and wearing that mask was, it was still a positive part of my life. I asked my friend’s daughter if she could paint my mask for me. She made it really come alive. When I saw the finished product I decided I wanted to give it to Dr. Hoffe. If I could inspire anyone can to add a human element to this mask—that is what I would love to do.

Why did you choose to paint your mask the way you did and with the colors you did?

I didn’t ask the artist to paint it in any particular way. When she finished painting it, her mother told me that her goal was to bring some of me into the design. The mask shows my hand holding the spot where the tumor was. She also incorporated the cross that I wear around my neck. What mattered most to her was that she made the mask a part of me. She stayed very soft with the colors. We didn’t lead her at all in how to design it. She had this vision and did amazing things with the mask.

How has painting and engaging with your mask changed your experience in the radiation clinic?

By the end of my radiation treatment, I was walking into the treatment room without having taken any medication. When I was clamped to that table, I would just start talking to Mary. We became great friends by the end of my treatment.

Do you feel like the experience of painting your mask has in any way shifted your outlook on your treatment and diagnosis?

I felt that I was not out of the game—that I was still in it and that I could do whatever I needed to continue fighting. It was very encouraging to go through the treatment process, which I am still going through because I am fighting the cancer. I expected the treatment to be easier than it was. It ended up being very difficult. But after I was done with my five weeks of radiation, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. And after that I was able to move on and continue treatment with chemotherapy.

You and your family have been staunch supporters of Moffitt and have contributed to the research mission. Can you tell us a little about the annual golf tournament your family has in Sarasota and why that is important to you?

It started out as the Callahan Tire Charity Program. We began this to support my aunt who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It made my dad want to do something to support cancer research. Through the first event we raised $4,000 and after that, my dad wanted to do something bigger. From there it snowballed - first with my sister’s diagnosis and then later my diagnoses.

Each time the mission got bigger. Now we raise $95,000 to $100,000 a year to support cancer research. We are close to having donated one million dollars in total, all going to Moffitt. I think that this has been therapy for my parents and family. It makes them feel that they are doing something to help. As a parent, sister, husband, or child of someone who has cancer, you realize that you can’t just fix this and make it better. So one thing you can do is to try to raise money for research to help find a cure for cancer. One hundred percent of all the money we raise goes to research. That is the most important part of why we do this.

Our dad is heartbroken by all that has happened. He has four daughters—two of them have had cancer, and one is still battling it. My parents are in very good health, and they wonder why and how this happened. When your daughters need something, you, as a dad, are used to fixing it for them. But this is something he can’t fix. But raising money for research and awareness is something that my parents can do. My parents are amazing. My mother has been there for every appointment, every treatment session, everything—and not just for me. When her own sister was diagnosed with cancer, my mother cared for her; then she cared for my sister when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then later for me when I was diagnosed. She has spent 12 years driving to cancer centers and being there for us. Raising money for cancer research is so important to us—if you don’t try, then nothing happens.

Read more about Patty's courageous story.