Margaret Ritchie: I am greatly moved by the support for my cancer battle
Former SDLP leader and ex-South Down MP Margaret Ritchie has said she has been "moved and buoyed" by the support after she announced she was being treated for breast cancer.
The 60-year-old, who was diagnosed in February, had a mastectomy in March and is half way through chemotherapy. Doctors have told her that the condition is treatable and she is confident in making a full recovery.
Support poured in for the Downpatrick politician yesterday, with words of encouragement coming from all shades of the political spectrum, among them DUP Leader Arlene Foster.
She wished Ms Ritchie well, calling her "a tenacious public representative and I know that same determination will help her through this period".
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald also wished her "a full and speedy recovery", as did party Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill who wished her the "very best for the future".
Ms Ritchie said that she was greatly moved by the messages. "The support, whether that has been via Facebook, Twitter, telephone calls and emails has been phenomenal," she said.
"Naturally I have been moved by the support on a very personal basis. But I say that I am doing this for all women who are going through this, or have gone through it and who will go through it. I feel totally buoyed by the support.
"Coming from a political angle there is a campaigning hat there, campaigning for the resources for the health service. I don't know if that is what I'll do when I get better. My first priority is to concentrate on myself and get myself delivered and recovered and restored to full health. And then I'll see what I'll do on conclusion of treatment in October.
"The support has been from across the political spectrum which is natural because I think illness transcends political differences. I think that is a good thing. Perhaps I brought some unity into political disunity.
"There is also community support, which is very good and I am very pleased about that.
"But again, I emphasise that it's not about me, it's about the issue. It's about women and the rights and needs of women's health in relation to oncology and cancer."
Ms Ritchie said it was heartening to see people rally around, but hoped that the support was also for the strong message she was spreading.
"I don't take it necessarily as support for me," she said. "It's support for someone who is coming out and telling, particularly women, that there is an opportunity for you to please avail of the mammogram service and to please avail of breast screening.
"There is also a message there to government as well to please get the political institutions up and running so that we can have the proper resources both in medical and nursing staff and also in money resources for them to do the job that they need to do to tackle cancer diagnosis, treatments and surgery.
"The level of treatment and the level of care between the surgical teams in Belfast City Hospital and the Oncology Centre is quite unbelievable, working under very difficult and challenging circumstances.
"Their level of care and treatment is second to none and they need to be praised very highly. It's why I'm speaking out - to showcase the work that they do."
Ms Ritchie says her political background helped give her courage to speak about a hugely important, albeit emotive and personal issue.
"I never made this a secret from day one. I just told people, because I don't think you can keep these things secret and I think that it's good to talk about it, because it helps you.
"Talking is a tonic, to be honest."