An SDLP MLA whose world was turned upside down by a brain tumour diagnosis is swimming a mile a day to raise money for Women’s Aid.
Cara Hunter, who is hoping to have surgery to remove a non-cancerous growth in her pituitary gland, will be going the distance in both open water and indoor pools.
The politician, who began her challenge to swim 14 miles in a fortnight on Monday, said she now had a much more positive outlook on her condition after revealing it in the Belfast Telegraph three months ago.
The side effects of her powerful medication include extreme nausea, but anti-sickness medication is helping the 26-year-old MLA cope.
“After I went public in October, a lot of people made contact with me to say they had the same condition,” she said.
“I set up a Facebook support group for everyone in Northern Ireland with a prolactinoma. We now have 34 members. We hope to meet up face-to-face when the pandemic eases.
“When you’re diagnosed, it’s a very lonely experience. You’re taking Cabergoline, which is used to treat Parkinson’s, and it’s very strong. You wake up in the morning feeling like you’re about to throw up but you’re never actually sick.
“I had ruled out surgery, because it can be dangerous but, after the Belfast Telegraph interview, several women told me they’d had surgery and it had changed their lives. One passed on the name of her surgeon.
“I’m going to pursue it. Now that I’ve found a way out of this, I’m much more optimistic and positive about the future. Talking openly about my condition really helped me as well.”
Ms Hunter was diagnosed with the condition on the day she took her Stormont seat last May.
It is more common in women than in men and if left untreated can lead to infertility.
She said she had decided to raise funds for Women’s Aid after seeing an increase in the number of women experiencing domestic violence last month.
“There was a rise of people coming into my Coleraine office seeking help last month as Christmas sees a spike in cases. Women’s Aid, which is just around the corner from my office, does tremendous work and helps everybody so discretely and sensitively.
“They do receive funding, but most definitely not enough. More than 500 women and 319 children were in a shelter seeking refuge at some point in 2020-21. Ten babies were born while their mothers lived in a refuge.
“Northern Ireland is unfortunately the only place in these islands that doesn’t have s specific strategy to tackle gender-based violence.”
Ms Hunter, who is from Portrush, said she thought swimming would be a more novel way than running to fundraise.
“A wave of open water sea swimming started last year,” she said. “There’s a fantastic group, the Menopause Mermaids, in Portrush. I think it’s a great way to take advantage of our beautiful coastline.
“It’s not just about improving physical health – the mental health benefits are enormous. It creates a real sense of community. People meet up very early in the morning and go for coffee before a swim.”
The SDLP MLA said she was getting used to “the level of strokes and endurance” required for her challenge.
“I’ve done my first three days in the pool. It’s 65 lengths to do a mile and that takes me 52 minutes. I’ll stop for a bit every 10 or 15 lengths," she said.
“I’m in totally new territory here. I run and lift weights but my limit in the pool was normally 30 lengths, so I’m really pushing myself.
“Some of my constituents want to join me when I swim in open water. Businesses have offered donations and coffee.
“It’s an early start these days – I’m getting up at 6am. But I’ve raised over £1,200 in three days, so that’s a big positive and I’ve still 11 more days to go.”