Val Armstrong is back, in more ways than one. Back on BBC Radio Cumbria today after four and a half months.

And back as the friendly, smiling presence loved by thousands of listeners.

Val, 54, has felt like someone else lately.

We’re talking in Gatehouse Café, which sits at the entrance to Carlisle Cemetery on Richardson Street. Val bought the business in 2016.

She’s chatting and joking with the staff and customers, assuring a group of three ladies that she’ll be back behind the microphone soon.

There were times when that didn’t seem possible.

“I finished work in mid-April,” she says.

“I spent 11 weeks in bed. It was pure fatigue.”

The reason goes back to Val’s struggles with cancer.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, and had a mastectomy and radiotherapy.

In 2010 the disease returned. Val had a second mastectomy and chemotherapy.

“After that, I had hormone therapy treatment. My cancer was fed by oestrogen. They give you hormone therapy so the oestrogen can’t feed cancer cells.

“I was on Tamoxifen. In April last year they changed the tablet, mainly because I’d gone through the menopause and Tamoxifen was the only one they can give you pre-menopause.

“The new drug was Letrozole. Both drugs cause side effects. I’d learned to deal with Tamoxifen’s side effects through seven and a half years.

“Letrozole’s side effects were something else. They tell you the side effects will ease. Mine didn’t. They grew.

“By April this year it kind of peaked.

“I had joint and muscle pain. Tiredness. Dry skin. Low mood. Fatigue as well - that’s different to tiredness. Hair loss and weight gain. Those are all common side effects.”

Val spent most of her time in bed because of her drug-induced fatigue and depression.

She needed crutches to walk and struggled to get downstairs.

“Food and drink are downstairs. I couldn’t walk down. My legs and hips wouldn’t take me.

“I couldn’t crawl down. Nobody could get in because I’d locked the front door. I slept and slept.

“After my second diagnosis of cancer I had low mood but not depression.

“I didn’t see this as depression, but it was. Because you’re in pain the hours just pass by. You just want to sleep.

“At one point I spent two and a half days upstairs, stuck.

“I had my phone on silent. You don’t want anybody to disturb you. You just want to be left. Which is the total opposite of who I am.

“At night there’s no one around. You do cry sometimes, if you’re isolated. But what’s causing that isolation is yourself.”

Her friends and family were naturally concerned and urged Val to seek help.

“My sister said ‘This isn’t right. You shouldn’t be living like this.’ My family hardly saw me, even before I went off sick.

“You put on a smile and a giggle at work. You use up all your energy doing it. When I came home I would feed the cat and go to bed. That was the fatigue side of it, and the low mood. That was normal for me in the end.”

Val even missed her former colleague Kevin Fernihough’s leaving do.

“He’s my best friend,” she says. “But I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Val did seek help and was prescribed painkillers and antidepressants.

“Because it’s all chemically caused, you can’t necessarily get out of it without help. You need chemicals to get out of it. Which has worked with depression.

“I’ve had three types of anti-depressant to help me. I’m on one now which seems to be working.

“I was on painkillers because the pain was so awful. 2.5mgs of Letrozole meant I was taking seven or eight other tablets.

“Letrozole were the smallest tablets. You would not believe the effect it has on your body.

“I didn’t think that a drug could affect you so much. The pain can sometimes take over your life.”

Val made an appointment with her oncologist. They talked through the problems and decided to end the treatment.

Val had been on hormone therapy for nine years. She is finishing it a year earlier than planned.

“I couldn’t have taken that tablet for another year,” she says.

“Hormone therapy is five to 10 years usually. I’m happy to take the risk of stopping early.

“You either choose to have a life with a tiny bit of risk or have no life at all.”

The decision has been taken for practical reasons.

But there is also an element of defiance; a statement that cancer will no longer dictate how she lives.

“It’s been part of my life for so long. I’ve been pounded really since the first diagnosis in 2006.

“Cancer has played a part in my life since then. It’s always been a shadow. I don’t want it to be a shadow anymore.

“I’ve never been totally able to move on because I’ve still been under treatment.

“It’s quite scary because you don’t have your comfort blanket. Now I’m flying solo.

“I never give it any big thinking time - ‘Is it going to come back?’ It’s a waste of worrying.

“I don’t have breast tissue. But you don’t know if something can trigger secondaries. But we won’t go there.”

Val stopped taking Letrozole eight weeks ago. Some of its side effects have yet to disappear.

“The pain is still there. I’m still on painkillers as well as antidepressants.

“I’ve had a bone scan to make sure the pain in my legs is nothing sinister.

“We likened it to floodwater leaving a property. It’s gone, and some of the property gets back to normal pretty quickly. But some damage remains.”

Val will still have health checks, and is keen to thank the medical staff who have helped her.

She also wants to encourage people to be open rather than suffer in silence.

“It’s good therapy to talk. If you don’t talk about this, people can’t help you.

“Twenty years ago nobody spoke about cancer or anything relating to mental health. People now want to talk about it.

“Quite a lot of people will say ‘A relative of mine went through a similar thing.’

“I’m a strong woman. This just shows you how things like depression can enter anybody’s life at any time for a variety of reasons, whether external events or chemistry.”

Val could be forgiven for complaining about how cancer has affected her.

Instead she looks for the bright side.

“One way a friend described it is that I’m the luckiest unlucky person alive.

“I’m unlucky to have had cancer. But it’s amazing and fantastic that I’m one of the ones that’s still here.”

How has cancer changed her?

“I’m not as highly strung as I used to be.

“Everything had to be perfect. Cushions had to be placed. Towels in the bathroom had to be folded a certain way. I would never have had a dog in my house.

“Now I’m just pleased there’s cushions on the couch and towels in the bathroom. And I snuggle into a dog.”

This is a patterjack called Luna who moved into Val’s house in Carlisle last month, along with Val’s brother Terry and sister-in-law Lil.

“We’ve been talking for years about them moving in. I’m a great supporter of communal family living.

“The most important thing in my life is my family who’ve supported me throughout my challenges.”

These include the death of her beloved mother Olive in 2015. Her photograph is on a wall at Gatehouse Café.

“She’s looking down on me,” smiles Val.

And perhaps encouraging a positive outlook.

“I’m really strong. I am. I’m in amazing health, other than the side effects.

“It’s important to remember that when you’re at your worst. You’re not poorly: you’re dealing with the side effects of medication.

“Physically I still struggle a bit on my legs. They are getting better.

“If I could walk a mile that would be amazing. Because at the height of the problems I was using two crutches.”

Another step forward comes this weekend with a return to her Saturday morning show on Radio Cumbria.

Next weekend she will also return to her Sunday morning show.

Val is one of the station’s longest-serving presenters, having joined in 1982.

“When you’re not working you don’t feel you have a worth. I love my job. I wanted to get back as soon as possible. But it’s stupid to rush back at the first opportunity. If you rush back you can go off again.

“Listeners know I’ve been struggling with the side effects of new medication. People can jump to conclusions. They think the cancer is back - it’s not.

“I’m looking forward to being on air again but I’m slightly nervous. I said to my boss ‘What if I can’t think of anything to say?’

“The second time with cancer, I was off for 25 months. When I came back I pressed a button and it was like I’d never been away.”

Many listeners have sent Val cards and messages, for which she is grateful.

Does she have a message for all those who have missed her?

She thinks for a moment. “Val’s alright,” she says. “Val’s still Val.”