Kiri Allan, the minister who guided New Zealand through recent tsunami and earthquake warnings, has been diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer.

Allan won praise for her calm handling of last month’s earthquakes and tsunami warning. A series of earthquakes ranging from 7.1 to 8.1 magnitude hit off the East Cape and Kermadec Islands in the early hours of 5 March, prompting an evacuation of some towns and cities on the coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

On Tuesday Allan revealed that on the morning of the tsunamis, between press conferences and emergency meetings, she was in hospital getting scans and tests that revealed a 6cm growth.

“By and large, things seemed OK and I could get back to work that day,” she said in a Facebook post sharing the news. “So I arrived back just in time for the 11.30 am stand up [press conference] at the beehive.”

Allan became the subject of online praise – and a series of memes – for her calm, informal style during the evacuation. In one interview, she noted that her Civil Defence uniform was “pretty skux” – a New Zealand slang term for cool. At the podium, she addressed New Zealand in te reo Māori as well as English, acknowledging tribal authorities and whānau, hapū and iwi who were in the affected areas.

But in the weeks following, she received results showing she had cancer. “The ‘C’ word hits you like a jolt I had never experienced. I gripped the wall in the airport,” she said.

She said that since receiving the diagnosis, the support from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whom she calls “the Boss,” had been profound: “the Boss, Jacinda has been a mate, a colleague and my boss through this process. I cried telling her the night I found out. And her words were profound. I’ll always have so much respect for the way she’s dealt with me over this past couple of weeks or so. A text away – always.”

In a statement, Ardern said, “I consider Kiri not just a colleague, but a friend. This news has been devastating. But I also know that Kiri is a person of determination, and as we’ve talked over the past few days I can hear how focused she is on her treatment, and ultimately her return.”

In her announcement, Allan called on other women to get smear tests, which enable earlier detection of the disease. “Smear your mea!” she said, using the te reo Māori language slogan.

Māori women in New Zealand are more than twice as likely as New Zealand European [Pākehā] women to be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and are three times more likely to die from the disease. “Please, please, please – encourage your sisters, your mothers, your daughters, your friends – please #SmearYourMea – it may save your life – and we need you right here.”

Allan, who is New Zealand’s minister for the environment and for emergency management will be taking medical leave from her ministerial and East Coast MP roles.

She said that “there may be questions about why it’s taken this long to say something publicly and to step back from work,” but wanted a full diagnosis before making decisions.

“Now the fight of my life begins,” she said.

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