Young men who died of melanoma remembered with free sunscreen project in city parks

The memories of two young men who died of the most deadly form of skin cancer are living on in a new pilot project adding free sunscreen dispensers to five Toronto parks.

2 organizations have partnered to launch sunscreen dispensers in 5 Toronto parks

Sunscreen dispensers are paired with notes on when to apply sunscreen. The David Cornfield Melanoma Fund and the Douglas Wright Foundation hope they'll soon be able to expand the program to more city parks. (David Cornfield Melanoma Fund)

The memories of two young men who died of the most deadly form of skin cancer are living on in a new pilot project adding free sunscreen dispensers to five Toronto parks. 

Douglas Wright, 29, and David Cornfield, 32, were both stricken with melanoma and died within a couple of years of being diagnosed.

Since over-exposure to the sun and other ultra-violet light plays a leading role in the disease, the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund and the Douglas Wright Foundation have teamed up with the city to distribute free sunscreen to parks this summer. 

The machines work like hand sanitizer dispensers; it's as simple as placing your hand underneath. (David Cornfield Melanoma Fund)

Sherbourne Common, Harbour Square, HTO Park and Little Norway Park, all parks in south Toronto, each have one dispenser, while Kew Gardens in east Toronto has two. Both organizations are covering the costs of the pilot, including hiring a maintenance company to refill, clean and maintain the dispensers.

It's a project close to the heart of Elyse Sunshine, who was Cornfield's step-sister and is now a board member on the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund.

Laissez-fare attitude toward sun protection

"People still unfortunately have this laissez-faire attitude about sun safety and don't realize how important it is to protect your skin and how easy it really is to do so," she said. 

David Cornfield had a wicked sense of humour, according to his step-sister. But he was also very caring, taking time to acknowledge special moments in other's lives. (Submitted by Elyse Sunshine)

"David really was a very special person. He was very charismatic. He was a brilliant guy. I think if you talked to everybody they would say he just had this light, that people were drawn to him," Sunshine said.

Young lives ended too soon

Cornfield was diagnosed with melanoma at 29. He underwent treatment and went into remission, but a later scan showed melanoma had developed in his lungs. Despite trying several other treatments, it continued to spread.

Cornfield's son, Noah, was born in 2004. He's shown with his wife, Sari. Sunshine said Cornfield was a wonderful father, but he should've had more time to watch his son grow. (Submitted by Elyse Sunshine)

He died on Dec. 18, 2005, but not before telling his wife about his hope that no other families would go through the same pain. Shortly after his death, a group of family, friends and coworkers set up the fund to work towards that objective.

"I know he'd be very, very proud. David was so very bright and really had wonderful ideas and was quite a visionary. I think he'd be thrilled with the success we've had," Sunshine said.

Sunshine, shown here with Cornfield, says she and others started the fund for 'all of those people who unfortunately can no longer speak for themselves.' (Submitted by Elyse Sunshine)

"I think anyone who has lost a loved one will tell you that the most terrifying thing is that they'll be forgotten," she said. "We are beyond thrilled that people do know his name, and when we see his name on even the dispensers ... it definitely tugs at the heart."

The other man at the heart of the project is Douglas Wright. Andrew Thompson was one of his close friends, and is now a board member with the Douglas Wright Foundation.

"When he got melanoma and he told me about it ... I didn't really know much about it at all," he said. "After he passed away it really struck me ... We came together as a group of friends and said we need to do something to try and help others so that this doesn't happen again."

Douglas Wright was an avid outdoorsman and sailor before getting melanoma. (submitted by Andrew Thompson)

A big outdoorsman and avid sailor, Wright grew up in Toronto and made friends wherever he went, according to Thompson. 

"We went to kindergarten together ... We were friends from when we were basically born," he said. "He was valedictorian at North Toronto [Collegiate Institute] and very successful in every facet of his life and was also just a great human being."

Wright was diagnosed with melanoma two years before his death in April of 2011. A few close friends and family decided they should honour him by educating others on melanoma and the dangers of poor skin safety.

Wright loved Toronto, and his friend Andrew Thompson is pleased the foundation is able to make a difference in the city that meant so much to him. (Submitted by Andrew Thompson)

When the foundation heard about the dispenser project, Thompson said they were excited about another way to achieve that goal.

"Knowing him, he'd be very humbled that all of this is being done in his name, but I think he'd be very proud of us as well," he said. "This was an opportunity with a unique and special person to build a community focused on increasing prevention of melanoma."

'Very detectable and preventable'

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 7,200 Canadians will be diagnosed with melanoma this year, and 1,250 will die from it.

Unfortunately, those numbers are still on the rise, says Dr. Paul Cohen with the Rosedale Dermatology Centre.

"It's a very detectable and preventable type of cancer, however people are doing things that are increasing their risk ... not being safe in the sun. The use of sun-tanning booths is still really popular despite all the warnings."

The new dispensers are one step toward bringing those numbers down, when paired with other sun-safe behaviour, such as wearing a hat and covering up bare skin, Cohen said. 

"I think it is beyond brilliant because I think it will remind people that they need to protect themselves," he said. "People run out of sunscreen, they haven't brought it or they're out longer.

"It's accessible and it just makes people more aware and thinking about it. Also, some people perhaps for budgetary reasons might not be as liberal with sunscreen as they should be."

'Take that extra second'

The two organizations have also teamed up to create educational videos as well as a sun hats program for children in kindergarten. 

They hope their stories and their efforts will help people make smarter choices.

"We do hope that when you're out there enjoying yourself, you will think of David and Doug and all the many who unfortunately have lost their lives and you'll take that extra second," Sunshine said.

For Thompson, it's all about creating a better future. 

"We want to raise our kids to practise sun safety and to grow up in a world where deaths like Doug's are prevented."


Taylor Simmons

Digital associate producer

Taylor Simmons is a digital associate producer for CBC Calgary. She has a masters in journalism from Western University and has worked as a multiplatform reporter in newsrooms across Canada, including in St. John's and Toronto. You can reach her at

With files from Melissa Galevski