Belfast Telegraph

Former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie urges women to undergo breast screenings after being diagnosed with cancer

By Leona O'Neill

Former SDLP MP and party leader Margaret Ritchie has revealed that she is being treated for breast cancer.

The 60-year-old politician was diagnosed in February, had a mastectomy in March and is halfway through a course of chemotherapy.

Doctors have told Ms Ritchie that her cancer was caught early and is treatable.

"I was diagnosed back in February of this year after a scheduled mammogram appointment," she said.

"I got a recall. I went to the breast assessment in the Belfast Trust at Linenhall Street and then they did biopsies where cancer was confirmed.

"I selected to go to the Cancer Centre and I was referred to a consultant breast surgeon and had my mastectomy on March 23.

"It was in several of my nodes and my doctor's attitude was to get rid of it all, because you can't be too careful of the lymphatic system.

"My scans that they took post-surgery were clear, so that was a good basis for treatment.

"I have to have chemotherapy, radiotherapy as well as hormone and calcium tablets in the future. I am in the middle of chemotherapy at the moment.

"I am three chemo treatments in. I'm not feeling too bad.

"The first few days you are on a combination of anti-sickness and steroids and your sleeping pattern is interfered with. But apart from that, by Saturday and Sunday, I'll usually feel grand again."

She said that the diagnosis was a "big shock", but that her family and friends had rallied around her.

"There was no history of breast cancer in our family. Of course there has to be someone first. But I am very positive," she said.

"There are bits and pieces of work I do, which keeps my mind focused. I believe that, and have been told that, this is treatable breast cancer, so I want to get on with my life.

"My family and friends have been extremely good and extremely helpful over the last number of months. While it was a shock for me, it couldn't have been easy for them either."

Ms Ritchie was an MLA between 2003 and 2012, succeeded Mark Durkan as party leader in 2010, and was MP for South Down between 2010 and 2017, when she lost her seat to Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard.

She said that her work kept her busy and her mind focused on matters beyond her treatment.

"I could feel sorry for myself, but feeling sorry for yourself doesn't achieve a thing," she added.

"I am staying positive. I would say that mine was caught early.

"But having said that, you can never be too careful.

"I am walking regularly and I am eating well but there are probably a lot of things that I should be doing that I'm not doing, like resting. For a person who was always extremely, extremely busy, it is very difficult to do that.

"I am still heavily involved in politics in South Down and I would want to stay like that. Politics is in my blood, it's in my DNA.

"I'm going to get on with this treatment and then get on with my life."

Ms Ritchie said that, having seen first-hand the pressure our health service is under, it was imperative that Stormont got up and running immediately.

"I couldn't praise the medical and nursing staff enough at Belfast City Hospital," she said.

"Whether it was in the surgical team or the oncology team. They deal with a very high volume of people on a five-day week basis between the Cancer Centre and Bridgewater and the work that they do is quite phenomenal. They are so attentive.

"Obviously they must be working in very difficult circumstances because the level of diagnosis is much higher these days.

"But they need to be given all the financial assistance and all the medical and nursing support that is possible in terms of staffing.

"I would also say in that regard, there is an urgent need for the restoration of the political institutions.

"I would hope that the greatest existential crisis of Brexit won't impact on our health service, but I'm not so sure about that.

"We do need the addition of more doctors into the service and I would hope that there would be resolutions there. Because we need all the support to do the good work."

As she navigates her chemotherapy treatment, Ms Ritchie advised other women to make sure they check themselves and attend their mammogram appointments.

"I would like to emphasise the importance of the mammography service and keeping to your mammogram appointments every three years," she said. "That is how I was diagnosed. I couldn't find a lump or anything.

"I want to say to women, please take up the offer of a breast screening. It is vitally important."

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