WHEN Valerie Rettie was diagnosed with breast cancer almost 18 months ago, her knowledge of the disease was minimal, to say the least.

"There's no cancer in my family," says the 56-year-old. "I didn't know anybody with cancer, I had never met anybody with cancer. I knew even less about mastectomies."

Yet, since her diagnosis, the mother-of-three has bravely kept a photo diary of her treatment, which has included chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and countless tests.

Husband Alex has captured images of her receiving six doses of chemo at the Victoria Infirmary, the after-effects of a sentinel node biopsy, which turned much of her breast blue, and took photographs immediately after the four-hour operation to remove both her breasts.

Like the graphic Elaine C Smith adverts aired on TV and in newspapers last year, Valerie is determined to break down the taboos surrounding breast cancer through publishing these photos on her Facebook site.

"I think you need to take away the fear," adds Valerie, from Rutherglen.

"The more you know about these things, the more people will be willing to get tested or know what to expect."

Battling breast cancer became the latest of many hurdles Valerie has had to overcome over the last three years.

She was made redundant from her job in personnel at Glasgow Airport, her mother died, her husband lost his bar business and the couple have had to face up to the fact they are going to lose their home.

"We had a lot of stresses," says Valerie. "But throughout last year, I felt more relaxed. I am a nervous, anxious person normally but, for some reason since that diagnosis, I seem to have calmed right down."

It was the night after her husband's 50th birthday that she discovered a lump in her armpit, which she describes as feeling like a "grape underneath a tablecloth".

She had an emergency appointment with a GP the following day on January 9 last year.

"By January 25, I was sitting with two surgeons and a breast care nurse and a registrar telling me this was serious," she says.

Valerie, who admits she could have been diagnosed earlier if she had gone for a mammogram, says the imminent arrival of her fourth grandchild also gave her the drive to beat the disease.

AFTER a mammogram, an ultrasound, biopsy, MRI, bone scans and CT scans, Valerie was told she had an invasive cancer in her left breast and a non-invasive cancer in her right.

"They could not just do a lumpectomy because I would have looked like Swiss cheese – there were just too many areas," says Valerie, relaxing with a cuppa at the Maggie's Cancer Support Centre, where she attended its Look Good, Feel Better classes.

"It was not just isolated in my breast – they had to take out the lymph nodes as well."

Within six weeks of diagnosis, Valerie began a neoadjuvant treatment involving chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy and reconstruction, then radiotherapy.

Despite losing her hair during chemo and contracting a fungal infection in her chest, she suffered few side-effects, apart from fatigue.

Consultant plastic surgeon Ben Chew carried out a bilateral reconstruction mastectomy with tissue expanders at the Royal Infirmary last August.

"Because the cancer at one of the sites was very near my nipple, I had to lose my nipples," she explains.

"I woke up with two dressings and hardly any bruising.

"My husband took pictures that same afternoon.

"I looked down and I expected to be black and blue and sore. I wasn't."

She returned on three occasions to have a total of 400ml of saline pumped into each expander through a valve under her arm.

One of the expanders slipped out of place, which had to be corrected through an operation before the start of 25 sessions of radiotherapy on Hallowe'en at the Beatson.

"I made a joke about running around Gartnavel glowing in the dark," jokes Valerie, who in the past worked as an extra in TV and film, appearing in the Morgan Freeman film Unleashed and a number of episodes of River City and Sea of Souls.

"There has to be a positive side and you need to have the jokes and the laughs about it.

"One of my sisters said I was being very flippant, but what am I supposed to do - crawl into my coffin?

"It's just me and it's how I deal with things."

Valerie, one of six children, has two married sons aged 39 and 37 and one daughter, 21.

Daughter Robyn, who still lives at home, ran the Race For Life for the last two years in support of her mum.

The mother and daughter regularly joke about Valerie's 'Jordans', the implants she will have in August. A few months later, she will have reconstructed nipples and areolas tattooed on to her breasts.

She recently completed training with the Citizens Advice Bureau and is about to begin volunteering at the Easterhouse branch, and hopes to gain a place volunteering at Glasgow 2014.

"It's my way of taking it forward and planning for the future," she adds.

For the next five years, she will take the drug Tamoxifen to stop the growth of her type of cancer, known as ER+.

"I'm a NED – No Evidence of Disease," says Valerie, a regular contributor to the GABBies (Glasgow and Ayrshire Breast Buddies) internet forum.

"If there's a wee cell wandering about my body somewhere and settles down and decides to multiply, it will not be detected until it has done that.

"But I'm at the lower end of the scale on that risk.

"I don't think it will. I think I have had the best treatment.

"In some ways, it sounds daft, but I feel privileged. It has been some experience, a learning experience."

l Maggie's has centres at the Gatehouse at the Western Infirmary and at Gartnavel Hospital.

maureen.ellis@ eveningtimes.co.uk