Skin cancer: ‘I got burned in my 20s and 30s doing work in the garden’

Jim Sheehan survived after an operation and years of ignoring tell-tale signs

With his red hair and pale freckled skin, Jim Sheehan was never much of a sun lover when he was growing up. But he still spent plenty of time out and about and although he wasn't lying on a sunbed, he thought he didn't need to apply sunscreen or take any precautions.

But he was wrong. And just like the comedian Sean Lock, who tragically died last month from lung cancer, he was diagnosed with skin cancer after years of ignoring the tell-tale signs.

“Apart from the odd cold and flu, I have never had any sickness in my life – I have always been blessed with good health and even now, at 63 years of age, the only medicine I take is Guinness,” he laughs. “So I happily went through life with no complaints whatsoever. But 10 years ago, I developed a mole on my right arm – halfway between my elbow and my shoulder. It started off quite small and eventually grew to about the size of a five-cent piece.

“At this point, people began to notice it, including my good wife and the rest of my family, who were saying that I should get it looked at, but I wouldn’t be one for going to the doctor. So it wasn’t until a friend sadly died from skin cancer, that I began to think more seriously about it as I had developed a second one on my back – and that is what he had too.


“I had a dream about him and afterwards I thought I should get my mole checked out, so I made an appointment with my GP.”

At the doctor’s surgery, Jim, who is married to Kay and has four grown up children (David, Maria, Joe and Karen) was told that he needed to have further examinations to determine the nature of the moles.

“Straight away my GP seemed slightly alarmed and referred me to a specialist,” he says. “Within a couple of days I had an appointment where the two moles were removed [for examination] on the spot, and I went back to work. There wasn’t a bother on me, and I didn’t think much more about it. I was told that someone would be in touch soon and I had expected this as my GP didn’t think the moles looked normal, but I really wasn’t very worried.

“He called me a few days later, on his mobile in the evening, which I thought was a bit strange because he doesn’t give that number to anyone, and he told me that, as suspected, both moles were malignant.

“But as I wasn’t the slightest bit ill, I wasn’t too concerned until my good wife and I went to the hospital appointment and the plastic surgeon told me that I had a particular form of skin cancer, which left me with a 50/50 chance of survival.

“This frightened the life out of Kay. But my attitude, as always, was that I would fight it no matter what and I prepared myself for surgery.”

The father-of-four, who works as a safety co-ordinator for Irish Water, underwent more tests before large patches of skin and the lymph nodes under his right arm were removed.

Lymph node removal

“After the tests on my nodes, they removed a big slice off my arm and my back,” he says. “The moles were gone at this stage, so they took a piece about six inches long and one inch wide off my arm and the same off my back – it was a lot of flesh. As I said to someone at the time, it was the size of a steak dinner and there was enough to feed the dogs.

“They removed a couple of lymph nodes as well and then tested all the skin they had removed. Luckily it hadn’t spread within the flesh, but the two lymph nodes showed signs of cancer so, after being in for a few days, I had to go back to hospital to have the lymph nodes removed. This was a bit more difficult as while I hadn’t been at all sore when I had the skin removed, there was a bit of pain this time and I had to stay in hospital a bit longer in order to have fluids drained and other things like that.

“But I wasn’t sick in myself and was out of my pyjamas every day at 9am for the whole week. I would go off out every day for a walk, sometimes I would be missing for an hour or more, which was totally against the rules – but I didn’t feel sick and wasn’t going to be thrown down in a bed.”

Fortunately for the Cork man, there was no further treatment needed and despite the stark diagnosis from his surgeon, he made a full recovery.

“The outcome of my recovery was all based on the success of the surgery as, at that time, there was no treatment available,” he says. “My body was a bit sore, and it had to learn how to sweat again as the sweat glands had been removed under the arm – so even to this day, I sweat out through my ribs on the right side. But thankfully I had no other side-effects and was back playing golf about six or eight weeks after surgery.

“I was very fortunate not to have had any emotional issues from the whole thing as I have a very positive attitude and always focus on the here and now rather than dwelling on what has happened in the past. So I motored on and the only change I made was that I started wearing sun cream for the first time in my life.

Sun loungers

“I never thought to wear it in the past because, although I love the sun, I wouldn’t be mad on lying out in it. And even on foreign holidays while the family would be on sun loungers or on lilos in the pool, I would be the only one not throwing myself under the sun and would always find something in the shade instead.

“But I certainly got burned a lot in the past, particularly in my 20s and 30s as I would be out doing work in the garden when it was sunny without a shirt on – I used to have red hair (am pure white now) and very pale, freckly skin, so I was an absolute target for the sun and never thought about putting cream on as I thought I would be fine if I wasn’t sunbathing.”

After his considerable brush with skin cancer, Jim is very conscious about the harmful rays of the sun and always takes precaution, whatever the weather.

“Slip, Slap, Slop, Wrap – I heard these four words recently in relation to skin cancer and I always try to follow them,” he says. “So I slip on a long-sleeve shirt and always have it when I am golfing, I slap on a straw hat while everyone else is wearing a baseball cap because a wide-brimmed hat will protect your ears while a baseball hat doesn’t. I also slop on sun cream whenever I am out, and I wrap around a pair of sunglasses.

“I also make a point of wearing gloves when I am golfing – I don’t take them off for the entire time I am out on the course as you just can’t be too careful with this.

“I would advise anyone who is worried about any kind of mole or skin tag to get it checked out. It may be nothing, and if it is, the doctor will refer. The important thing is to keep safe, keep checking and drive on.”

The new Marie Keating Foundation Talks Cancer podcast provides expert information and patient experience to all those affected by a cancer diagnosis. This series, kindly supported by Novartis, are “Talking Melanoma”. All eight episodes of this podcast series are available now on all streaming platforms. Visit for more information.

Skin cancer: facts and protection

Skin cancers account for one in three cancers diagnosed every year Ireland and are divided into two main types: melanoma and non-melanoma

Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland, with melanoma being the fourth most common

There are over 12,114 non-melanoma skin cancers and over 1,197 melanomas diagnosed every year

The incidence of skin cancer is expected to treble over the next 20 years, with the risk of developing melanomas increasing at a much greater rate for men than for women.

Outdoor workers receive up to eight times more exposure to UV radiation than indoor workers so are particularly at risk. So it is vitally important to be aware of the risk.

The number of people diagnosed rises each year and early detection is vital, so people also need to be aware of any changes to their skin and contact their doctor if they spot anything unusual.

Being sunsmart is vital to preventing skin cancer so risks can be reduced by seeking shade between 11am and 3pm, applying sunscreen with SPF30 or higher (SPF50 for children) and UVA/UVB protection on all exposed area of the body every two hours, covering up with a long-sleeved collared shirt, a hat and sunglasses with full UV protection.