Naomi Long said nothing about cancer during flag protest 'because I didn’t want anyone to think I was seeking sympathy'
Naomi Long tells of health scare as she faced loyalist death threats
Alliance leader Naomi Long has revealed that she was diagnosed with cancer at the height of the flag protests, when she was under threat from loyalists.
Mrs Long had life-saving surgery but she described the moment that she was diagnosed as the most terrifying time of her life.
"I guess a cancer diagnosis kind of puts a bullet in the post in perspective because, you know, whatever politics can do to you, whatever threats people can make, there is nothing quite as frightening as when your own body is working against you," she said.
Mrs Long reveals her diagnosis in an interview with BBC Spotlight's Mandy McAuley which will be broadcast tonight.
The programme tells her life story and examines her career and the challenges she is facing as Alliance's new leader.
Mrs Long recalled how at the height of the flag protests, she noticed a mole on her wrist was bleeding.
It turned out to be skin cancer, a malignant melanoma.
She had it removed surgically and did not require any further treatment.
She has been all clear from cancer for three and a half years but she had regular check-ups and has had further moles removed as a precaution.
She said that she was speaking out now to raise awareness of skin cancer and how early detection and treatment is crucial.
Mrs Long revealed that she deliberately didn't make her cancer diagnosis public at the time.
"If I had talked about it then, it would have been portrayed as me wishing to be a victim and I am nobody's victim. I wasn't seeking people's sympathy and I didn't want anyone to think I was seeking sympathy," she said. During the flag protests, Mrs Long was warned by police that they had intelligence that she would be shot at her east Belfast home or at her office.
Despite having bulletproof glass and security cameras, she was unable to use the front room of her house for three years.
The Alliance leader, who was East Belfast MP at the time, said that as well as having the cancerous mole removed, she had to go back to hospital for further surgery.
"I had an additional part of skin on my wrist removed around the mole, a sort of safe zone," she said.
"And my arm then had to be reflected back and put in a cast to avoid me having a skin graft. So at the same time that all of that (the flag protest) was going on, I was dealing with I suppose quite a difficult sort of personal issue as well."
Mrs Long's husband, Michael, who is the Alliance group leader on Belfast City Council, said that it has been a very challenging time for them.
"It was like just pure devastation to find out that this was what it was, a malignant melanoma, and just that it had been there for a wee while and obviously that was of real concern," he said.
"Really, I think at that stage you're just wondering what was coming next, to be honest with you, between the flag stuff and everything else."
Mrs Long disclosed that she was now free of cancer.
"Three and a half years clear and feeling good, I have had two other moles removed which were fine," she said.
"But I am obviously really cautious now so anything that gives me any trouble I get it looked at immediately and preferably removed."
She is ultra-careful when in the sun, making sure that her skin is well covered.
She said that she hoped that by going public with her own experience, she could help others.
"A third of us will face cancer at some point in our lives," she said.
"And I think we as a society need to talk about it more.
"We need to be better at supporting each other in terms of how we deal with it, and also we need to recognise the success stories.
"Because there are success stories and we need to give people hope for the future and encouragement to believe that there is a life after a diagnosis."
The Spotlight team filmed the Longs - who were childhood sweethearts and met at 14 - in their east Belfast home.
Mrs Long, who took over from David Ford as Alliance leader last month, is questioned about the direction in which she plans to take the party and the challenges of increasing its electoral support.
When asked about her position on the Union, the Alliance leader maintained that she isn't a unionist.
"Would it make life easier for me if I pretended I was a unionist?" she asked.
"Maybe it would, but it's not who I am and it wouldn't be honest."
- Spotlight is on BBC One tonight at 10.40pm