Superheroes help child cancer patients

Janica Smit shows another of her painted masks.

Janica Smit shows another of her painted masks.

Published Feb 16, 2024


Superheroes on painted masks are now making life much easier for little cancer patients at the oncology unit at Life Eugene Marais Hospital in Pretoria.

Over the past five decades, substantial advances in available treatments have led to large improvements in childhood cancer survival rates, which have increased from 30% in the 1960s to now up to 80% in most countries.

Despite this, the treatment journey for children diagnosed with cancer may be daunting and uncertain.

For children, radiotherapy sessions can be scary, as young patients are required to wear a thermoplastic mask. These masks are used to immobilise the patient, so they lie still and in the correct position during the entire session.

According to Janica Smit, radiotherapy lead at the oncology unit at Life Eugene Marais Hospital, the mask makes many young patients feel anxious. This is complicated by the fact that they are also required to remain alone in a radiation bunker.

Painted masks awaits little cancer patients in theatre.

“I did some research to see what other oncology units were doing to improve the experience of paediatric patients,” Smit said.

Many provide children with a general anaesthetic to ensure they don’t move during the sessions.

“But I also discovered that some centres were painting the masks, turning them into superheroes.”

Smit, following extensive research, focused on sourcing paint products that were safe for clinical applications.

“Radiation can interact with certain substances, causing unnecessary skin reactions, so I needed to confirm the paint was free of sulphates and metals.”

Smit said she worked with the medical physics team to determine the safety of the paints and, with their permission, began her thermoplastic mask-painting journey.

One of Janica Smith’s painted masks.

It takes about two hours to paint a large mask, but Smit usually does it over two nights. First comes the base coat, and once that has dried, all the finer details. She has painted everything from Spiderman and other superheroes to Barbie and Formula 1.

Since painting the masks, none of the children she has treated has required a general anaesthetic.

“Therapeutic play has been shown to decrease levels of anxiety and increase compliance during medical procedures. I started with this special project to help reduce my patients’ stress levels. By allowing them to wear the mask of their favourite hero, they’re encouraged to be brave and to face their fears.”

Smit believes it’s her passion to help children overcome cancer that has led her to consider child-friendly processes, which are crucial as International Childhood Cancer Day was commemorated yesterday (February 15).

Pretoria News

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