To her son, Mary Johnston was both a loving mom and a fierce hero.
“She was incredibly compassionate and kind, she always had a smile despite what was going on,” says Ron Johnston.
For 22 years of her life, Mary lived with cancer, specifically melanoma, as well as breast cancer. Ron says that didn’t stop her from being the first to volunteer her time for others, such as on school committees and as president of the Alberta Society of Melanoma, a support group for patients and their families.
He fondly remembers his mom, who lived in Edmonton, writing to the Edmonton Journal about the dangers of tanning beds and not wearing sunscreen — advocating for others to practice safe sun exposure before it was more common knowledge.
“She was very committed to that cause, knowing that it was an avoidable situation,” says Ron, who works as a forensic advisor in evidence recovery with the Edmonton RCMP.
Mary passed away in June 2004, leaving behind four children and her husband, Dr. Bill Johnston, as well as numerous others who knew and loved her.
Her legacy is preserved, in part, by the founding of the Mary Johnston Chair in Melanoma Research at the Cross Cancer Institute, funded thanks to the generosity of Alberta Cancer Foundation donors in 2006.
The chair was established through the joint efforts of Mary’s family and Bill, who was formerly the director for the division of orthopedic surgery and chief of surgery at the University of Alberta Hospital and Grey Nuns Community Hospital. Bill passed away in 2018.
The first of its kind in Canada, the chair supports direct and continued research into prevention, detection and treatments specifically for malignant melanoma, helping to pair researchers and clinicians with the resources they need.
The story does not end there, however. It was while still grieving the loss of his mother, in 2010, that Ron learned of a small, Edmonton-based fundraiser committed to donating a significant portion of its funds to his mother’s chair.
The fundraiser, Win4Skin, is dedicated to Owen Schlosser. Owen was one of six children and was well-loved by many friends and family who knew him. In 2009, at 21 years old, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. He passed away that same year.
In his honour, family and friends created the Owen Schlosser Endowment Fund through the Edmonton Community Foundation, which gives money raised from Win4Skin to a group of organizations that support kids’ access to sports. Along with the fund, Win4Skin shares annual proceeds with the Mary Johnston Chair.
Held in 2010, the first Win4Skin event, a 3-on-3 hockey tournament, raised $32,000.
Knowing that the Mary Johnston Chair was created for melanoma research, the founders of Win4Skin thought it was a natural fit to receive event proceeds.
“Ron’s family was an immediate connection because they were raising funds to help with research and the care of patients with exactly what Owen had suffered,” says Evelyn Chicoine, Owen’s oldest sister and a Win4Skin committee member.
Ron had to know more, so he made a call to David Chapman, the founder of Win4Skin who also lives in Edmonton.
“When we talked on the phone that first half-hour, I described how much it meant to me,” says Ron. “These people that didn’t know my mom decided to raise money.”
It turned out that Ron and David, who is now a urology resident at the University of Alberta, had a lot in common, including that they had both experienced the loss of a loved one due to melanoma.
Hearing Owen’s story and his family’s commitment to supporting the Mary Johnston Chair, Ron offered to help Win4Skin in any way he could. Over the next 10 years, with the work of a growing team — including Ron, his family, and Owen’s friends and family — the event grew. In that time, Win4Skin has raised more than $950,000 for both organizations.
How Win4Skin fundraises has morphed over the years, but it always involves sports, in honour of Owen’s love of all things active, as well as a gala dinner.
“Owen was always a very happy, lighthearted guy; he was also very active,” says David, who first met Owen in high school.
The latest Win4Skin event, in June 2019, took place over a month, with a five-kilometre run, bowling event and soldout gala, raising more than $153,000.
“Each year, we seem to have new people coming in through the community that have been impacted by skin cancer, or have a passion about children accessing sports,” says Evelyn, who works in business development.
“Win4Skin reminds us of what amazing people both Owen and Mary were, but it’s also a forum for us to give back.”
Heading into its 11th year in 2020, Win4Skin inspires thankfulness in Ron, who is grateful for this community of former strangers who became friends.
“The biggest thing is trying to honour my mom’s legacy,” he says. “I’m humbled by the courage that she showed when facing melanoma by working tirelessly to try to prevent other people from going through the same thing.”