Edmonton skin cancer survivor urges others to protect themselves from the sun

As the Canadian Dermatology Association kicks off its Sun Awareness Week, Sheila O’Kelly hopes her personal journey through skin cancer will convince others to don a hat and slather on some sunscreen.

Sun Awareness Week warns of risk of sun exposure, danger of complacency

Sheila O'Kelly is recovering from facial surgery after receiving treatment for skin cancer on her nose. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

These days, Sheila O'Kelly doesn't go anywhere without her hat and sunscreen. She's recovering from a form of skin cancer that required facial surgery, and the experience has changed her outlook. 

"We live in Alberta where there's so much sun, and my work took me to sunny places as well. I would say I wasn't careful enough," O'Kelly told CBC News. 

As the Canadian Dermatology Association kicks off its Sun Awareness Week, O'Kelly hopes her story will convince others to don a hat and slather on some sunscreen when they go outdoors. 

'It needs attention'

O'Kelly, 66, was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma on her nose in January. It's the most common type of skin cancer, and is highly curable.

She underwent Mohs surgery, in which cancer cells are removed layer by layer. 

O'Kelly then underwent facial surgery in March to reconstruct her nose, using skin from her forehead.

"I was surprised at the extent of [my cancer]," said O'Kelly, who has friends that had gone through less invasive treatment. "Obviously mine was more intense."

She joked that growing up in Ireland, soaking up the sun was a rare treat. Later in life, as she built her career as a triathlon organizer, long days in the sun were part of the job.

Sheila O'Kelly watches her grand-sons play street hockey. She says her family is more aware of the dangers of sun exposure since her diagnosis. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

"I did wear sunscreen, but I don't think I was diligent enough," she said. "I probably should have worn hats more frequently, too."

O'Kelly said she wants to increase awareness of skin cancer at the triathlons she organizes, and believes more education on sun exposure would benefit all Edmontonians. 

"Edmonton is a festival city. There's so many people out and so much outdoor stuff in the summer," she said. "It needs attention."

Sunscreen is key

O'Kelly's story is all too common. 

One child out of seven born today will get skin cancer in his or her lifetime, said Edmonton dermatologist Dr. Barry Lycka. 

"Skin cancer is going through epic proportions in this day and age," he told CBC News.

Dr. Lycka recommends sunscreen that contains titanium dioxyde, which reflects sunlight. (Diane Paquette/CBC)

The message is simple and worth repeating: regular application of sunscreen is the key to preventing skin cancer.

"Sunscreen should be part of your everyday routine. It should go on 365 days a year," Lycka said. 

More than 80,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in Canada each year, according to the Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation, which Lycka founded.

Types of skin cancer

Daily exposure to the sun can cause basal cell carcinoma, a benign cancer that doesn't spread to other parts of the body, but keeps growing.

Squamous cell carcinoma is also usually caused by daily sun exposure, and has a small chance of metastasizing. 

Repeated sunburns can cause melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. It can spread throughout the body.

"It used to be a death sentence, but fortunately in this day and age, we have drugs that can cure that," Lycka said. 

People with skin sores that won't heal or keep coming back, or moles that change shape or colour should consult a dermatologist. 

"Early detection is the key to treating all skin cancers," Lycka said. 

Men less concerned than women

A national survey conducted online by the Canadian Dermatology Association in September 2017 found that men are less concerned about sun safety than women. 

Only 55 percent of men who responded to the survey said they were concerned about the link between sun exposure and increased risk of skin cancer, compared to 67 percent of women. 

Dr. Barry Lycka says people need to check their entire bodies for early signs of skin cancer. He recommends asking someone to help check the back and scalp. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

"Men are slowly catching on," said Lycka, who added that fair-skinned people are particularly vulnerable.

He also warned against buying into common myths, like the idea that a base tan protects against future sun exposure. 

"Not a good thing," he said. "A base tan is damage. We don't want that damage spreading."

About the Author

Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca