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Mary Lambie’s about face

After a brush with cancer, the presenter is changing her ways.
Television presenter Mary Lambie

After her years of presenting TV One’s Good Morning, Mary Lambie has one of New Zealand’s more familiar faces. But a few weeks ago that face changed. Now there is a scar that runs from her cheekbone almost down to her jaw.

Mary describes it as a “war wound” and rather than feeling vain about it, she is counting her blessings. She’s had a melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer and one of this country’s biggest killers. But thanks to being diligent about her six-monthly mole checks, it was caught early and removed.

“I’ve always thought melanoma would be my thing,” admits Mary (48). “I’ve got fair skin. I spent my childhood burning then peeling off skin and in my teens coated myself in coconut oil. In my twenties and thirties I thought a tan was a must. Finally, in my forties, I wised up and since then I’ve been having regular skin checks.”

Mary had already had three moles cut out, all of them benign. Still, she didn’t pick up on the darkening on her cheek at first. “When you’re looking at something every day in the mirror it’s easy not to notice a change,” she says.

But her dermatologist was concerned it had the hallmarks of something nasty, so cut it out and sent it off for testing. Mary recalls her fear when he told her it was a melanoma. “Within a nanosecond of him saying it so many thoughts crowded my head – my survival, my three children, were my affairs in order… The prospect of having a massive scar down my face didn’t even factor.”

When a melanoma is removed it’s important to take out a margin of skin around it to be certain all the cancerous cells have gone. Mary was sent to a plastic surgeon who removed roughly 1cm of her skin and left her with 12 stitches.

On the day of the Weekly’s photoshoot she was wearing a plaster that she’ll keep on for the next three to four months to protect the wound. She has no idea how the scar will eventually look. “It absolutely doesn’t matter to me,” says Mary.

‘The prospect of having a massive scar didn’t even factor,’ says Mary.

“I don’t care how hideous it looks and I haven’t shed one tear over my new look. If anything I’m grateful it’s on my face, because it’s an everyday reminder of how meticulous I have to be with my sun protection. “I now have an eight times greater chance of developing another melanoma than someone who has never had one so I have to be vigilant.”

Since she kayaks, runs marathons and cycles, Mary is often outdoors and has had to improve the way she protects her skin. “I went for a run the other day and for the first time in my life wore a hat,” she says. “And I put on enough sunscreen to make myself unrecognisable. In the past I might have applied lotion once and forgotten about it; now I’m aware that if I’m exercising I need to reapply every half hour.”

Her children Grace (10) and twins Jack and Elizabeth (8) were one of Mary’s greatest concerns. She didn’t want to alarm them with her swollen and bandaged face, but it was a perfect opportunity to get the sun-safety message across.

“It’s been a fight every single morning to get sunscreen and hats on those kids ever since they were born!” she says. “Without being alarmist, I want them to be reminded if they don’t do it they’ll likely end up in the same boat as me.”

Mary jokingly describes her melanoma removal as “the poor man’s face lift”. While it has temporarily tightened up one side of her face it should settle down in the coming months. But melanoma has left a scar on more than her right cheek.

Mary’s more aware of her mortality and admits she’s become a pain in the neck, lecturing running friends about wearing hats and sunscreen. “Summer, winter, wet, dry – if you go outside wear sunscreen and cover up. And get regular skin checks from someone with a trained eye, especially if you see something odd or changing.

“My surgeon told me that there isn’t a family in New Zealand that hasn’t been touched by melanoma,” adds Mary. “But if it’s detected early enough then it’s completely curable.”

What Mary’s learned

  • Get checked every six months by a professional (not your best friend or a partner).

  • The face is the most common place to get melanoma because of its high exposure to the sun, or the top of the head for bald people.

  • Early detection almost guarantees you’ll be cured. Don’t leave strangelooking moles – get them checked as soon as you can.

  • Apply sunscreen (SPF 30) every day of the year. Reapply half-hourly if swimming or sweating and every two hours if going about normal activity.

  • Your best protection is staying out of the sun. If not, wear long sleeves, hats and aim to be in the shade when possible.

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