WASHINGTON -- On her third day back from her medical leave, retiring Rep. Carolyn McCarthy returned to the issue that brought her to Congress, giving a poignant valedictory pep talk to gun-control activists frustrated by lawmakers' inaction.

McCarthy (D-Mineola) gave a 10-minute unscripted speech, telling the activists, most of them women, to be patient and accept their success of at least keeping the issue of gun violence alive.

Above all, McCarthy told them, "Don't give up."

McCarthy made the remarks Wednesday in her first news conference in nearly a year, held by Mayors Against Illegal Guns to release a study identifying 44 school shootings since the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., 14 months ago.

The event was called to express outrage at Congress' inability to pass any gun violence laws last year. Shannon Watts of Moms Demand called it "deplorable." Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said it's "unacceptable."

But when McCarthy took the microphone, she thanked shooting victims and survivors there, and said, "I'm going to talk a little bit differently than what my colleagues have talked about.

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"When I first came to Congress, which is just about 18 years ago, nobody would even talk about gun violence," she said. Even a few years ago, Congress stopped talking about mass shootings a day or two after they happened, she said.

"When I hear people say nothing has been done since Newtown -- the conversation is still going on," she said. "Because of all of you, the conversation is still going on."

She added, "I think that all of you have to remember it's going to be a long battle."

Recalling the 1993 Long Island Rail Road massacre that killed six and wounded 19, she said, "I've been doing this for 20 years since my husband was killed and my son was seriously injured. You're going to have your up and your down days."

She talked about her future.

"Many of you know I have been diagnosed with lung cancer, and I will be retiring in January," she said. "I am retiring from Congress. I am not retiring from the battle."

In an interview beforehand, McCarthy described her return to Washington and her colleagues' welcome: "Emotionally, it's been draining." On Monday, she cast her first votes since May. On Tuesday, she went to a hearing featuring Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen.

She said she feels "fine" from her cancer treatment. But she said she's recovering from arthroscopic surgery for a torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder, which requires wearing a sling.

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McCarthy said she's chaffing at the kid-glove treatment her staff is giving her, but admits she's exhausted at day's end.

She said she's skipping the House Democrats' conference Thursday and Friday, returning to Mineola Wednesday afternoon to beat the snow. She'll be back here after next week's recess.