Rita McAlonan is a woman whose steely determination has seen her survive against the odds.

The mum of two from Nutts Corner was dealt a devastating blow when she was diagnosed with advanced metastatic breast cancer in January 2021 – made even more difficult to accept as she was alone at the time, and it came after multiple trips to the doctor with concerns about her health.

Then, heaping further misery upon her as she went through a gruelling treatment regime, Rita went without support due to the Covid-19 pandemic as she dealt with the gut-wrenching reality of a cancer diagnosis.

It is difficult to imagine the fortitude it took to get through the ordeal.

However, worse was yet to come.

Despite everything she had been through, the cancer returned and 51-year-old Rita has been given a terminal diagnosis.

But in true warrior style, Rita is refusing to accept the crushing prognosis, convinced she has found a doctor who can give her back her life, although this help is outside of Northern Ireland

“I have been researching to see if I can find any treatment options and I have found some, but they are expensive,” she explains.

“I’m fundraising but I can’t make a decision about what I’m going to do until we see what funds we have. The ultimate treatment would be with a US doctor who can do amazing things.

“He is pioneering targeted treatments and is a real front runner in how to use immunotherapy, and how to use it well. He was recommended by someone who has been treated by him. She was given 12 months to live and she is 14 months down the line.

“It’s really difficult in my situation because there is something on the table that will help, but I just can’t reach it.”

Rita’s life came crashing down when she was told she had breast cancer.

“When the doctor told me, my first response was to say to him, ‘please don’t let me die, I have children’. It wasn’t about me or anything else, all I could think of was that I had kids.

Despite the distressing news, Rita – mum to 18-year-old James and 15-year-old Conor, and married to 55-year-old James for 21 years – remained optimistic about the future.

“The surgeon told me it was treatable,” she says.

With this in mind, and knowing her boys were only 12 and 15 when she was first diagnosed, Rita endured everything that was thrown at her in her bid to recover.

However, she is still traumatised by the lack of support available to cancer patients during the pandemic.

“I had no support network at all, everywhere had shut down and no-one came to see me, I had no help at all,” she says.

“I rang one of the cancer charities and they returned my call nine months later. I couldn’t even get a wig, no-one helped me with my hair. I also unable to get help for a mastectomy bra as there was no one to do it but a nurse helped me in the end. I felt like I didn’t matter.

“Everyone was so focussed on Covid, one of the nurses took it on herself to try and get me support. I don’t blame them, they were doing the best they could with skeleton staff, there was no-one fundraising at the time so the charities were doing the best they could with limited resources.

“I was admitted to hospital a couple of months ago for post chemotherapy side effects and spoke to a nurse who said the stuff they did during Covid was so cruel and horrible. She broke her heart, she was visibly distressed about it.”

Despite the empathy shown by nursing staff, Rita says she feels there’s severe lack of support for women with secondary breast cancer.

She discovered the disease had returned, this time on her skin, when she pressed a doctor for an answer over a rash during a routine appointment.

“I just hadn’t been feeling well but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” she says.

“I was there all alone again and I was sitting there and all I could think about was that I was going to have to go home and tell my poor husband I had cancer again.

“They have told me there is nothing to treat me with, all they are offering is palliative chemotherapy, but these treatments are making me very ill. My oncologist here has nothing left to offer but other doctors do.

“I can’t even begin to describe the cancer on my skin, I’ve been left in terrible pain. It’s a very complex and aggressive disease. They just don’t have the treatments I need here but there are specialists in the US, Mexico and Europe who can help.

“I feel like if I wanted to die, then every help and support would be given to make sure it happens, but I want to live. I feel like they treat the tumour, not the person.

“I’m exhausted but I’m putting all my energy into finding alternative treatments. I’ve found someone who can help but it’s a lot of money and I will have to travel to Mexico.

“However, that’s the kind of person you want behind you, not someone who is going to tell you on repeat that you’re going to die.

“When I got cancer, I was self-employed and I lost everything overnight, which was devastating.

“I’m a private person, but I’m also a very strong and determined person and I always just get on with things and that’s why I am having to put my private life in a public forum. Speaking like this, it isn’t me.

“But I want to live. I deserve to be given a chance. I don’t believe I have fought this hard for this long to just give up now.”

To help Rita reach her fundraising target and enable her to continue her fight for life, log onto the Help Rita Get Life Saving Cancer Treatment GoFundMe page set up by her husband, James.