Son’s skin cancer death sparks sunscreen drive

Karen Wells, with her granddaughter Aleighna, 7, shows off one of the sunscreen stations she is trying to bring to various public places in Kelowna, including the Kelowna Golf and Country Club, the Kelowna Visitor Centre and Gyro Beach, this summer.

A local woman who lost her son to skin cancer three years ago is on a mission to introduce sunscreen stations at all beaches, parks and as many other public places as possible across the Okanagan.

Karen Wells is the founding director of Morgan’s Mole Patrol, a pending non-profit foundation she started in memory of her son Morgan, who died at age 33 in December 2016 from melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.

Wells said her goal is simple. She is working in tandem with the provincial Save Your Skin organization from Vancouver and hopes to have portable sunscreen stations in as many public places as possible in the Okanagan and across the province.

As a pilot project this summer, Wells is working to officially introduce sunscreen stations at Gyro Beach, the Kelowna Golf and Country Club, and at the Kelowna Visitor Centre.

Melanoma is one of the fastest growing cancers in North America, surpassing lung and breast cancer, and just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles the odds of developing the disease later in life, said Wells.

“We really need this for our children and future generations,” said Wells, who broke into tears several times while recalling her son’s death and telling of her efforts to help others and prevent them from having to endure the same heartbreak and pain.

Her son went from seemingly healthy to seriously ill in a matter of months, and it’s difficult to believe a small mole led to such tragic consequences.

“He had a mole on his back and went to his family doctor and the doctor said it looked benign,” she said. “It was frozen with liquid nitrogen and covered with a Band-Aid. He came home and high-fived me and said everything was fine.”

It wasn’t.

He returned to the doctor several months later and discovered a cancerous melanoma had spread to many parts of his body.

He died several weeks later, leaving behind a wife and two young sons, one of whom was only six months old.

“He went back to the doctor and it was too late . . . it came back Stage 4,” Wells said. “That’s the thing with melanoma. If it’s not detected early enough, it has the chance to spread very quickly, and it did. That was in March, and we lost him in December.”

Only weeks before this incident, she noticed a mole on her own leg, went to a walk-in clinic, was diagnosed with a small tumour and had it removed weeks later in late 2015, she said.

Still reeling from Morgan’s death almost three years later, Wells said working to ensure others don’t suffer the same fate has “become my life’s mission.”

“I’m trying to raise awareness,” she said. “If I can just stop one family from going through what my family has been through, to spare them, then my mission will be complete.”

She started the Mole Patrol movement soon after her son was diagnosed, but has since added his name to the cause and is close to reaching non-profit status after teaming up with Save Your Skin.

“My goal is to try and educate people on how to play safe in the sun,” she said. “I’m not saying stay out of the sun as we obviously need the sun to heat the planet, grow food and sustain life, but you have to stay safe and be aware of how deadly the sun can be. Melanoma is a very survivable cancer, but only if you catch it early.”

Wells was shocked by how many adults weren’t using any sunscreen when she took a survey on July 1, a hot day.

“There were 380 people questioned and more than one-third admitted they did not wear sunscreen,” she said. “Many parents would walk by with their children and the kids were covered in sunscreen, but the parents were not. I couldn’t believe it.”

The best way she could think of to help others is to install as many sunscreen stations as possible in public places, she said.

The stations will be filled with lotion featuring sun protection factor 30.

“We’re trying to get these sunscreen stations at various locations across the city and we’re just working on the logistics right now,” she said.

Kelowna Golf Course management have agreed to install one, and she’s working with city staff to bring one to Gyro Beach and the Kelowna Visitor Centre on Aug. 1, she said. Management at the Kelowna Yacht Club have also shown support to have one installed outside their building.

If the pilot project is successful, the plan is to have dozens installed in Kelowna starting in 2020, and then work with other communities to generate interest and have them installed there and then across the province, she said.

“We will be collecting data in July, August and September and maybe October, depending on the weather,” she said. “We’re going to go back to all the municipalities in B.C. to try and get them on board. We’ll start with Vancouver. We want to get this provincewide, starting here in Kelowna.”

Wells got the idea from two families in Toronto who also lost sons to melanoma, and she was thrilled to hear Toronto will be installing another 50 sunscreen stations this summer.

“My goal, honestly, would be to have one on every corner if I could,” she said.

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand have been offering free sunscreen stations to residents for many years, and the time has come to do the same here in the Okanagan, said Wells.

Save Your Skin executive director Cathy Barnard has great connections with the companies that manufacture sunscreen products and large retailers, and she has done a great job securing sponsors, Wells said.

Wells said she also lost both her parents and older brother to cancer and is willing to do whatever it takes to help others.

“I’ve had enough with cancer,” she said.

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