Actress Valerie Harper is Living Life Fully
… even with a diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer
by Jessica Webb Errickson
According to the American Lung Association, every five minutes, a woman in the U.S. is diagnosed with lung cancer. In 2009, beloved television and stage actress Valerie Harper became one of them.
Following surgery to remove a tumor from her right lung, Valerie enjoyed four cancer-free years before learning that not only had her cancer returned, manifesting itself in the tissue surrounding her brain and spinal cord, but this time, it was terminal.
Valerie, well known for her character Rhoda Morgenstern on the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff, Rhoda, first learned she had cancer after a routine X-ray detected a suspicious spot on her right lung. Having caught it early, her surgeon was able to remove the tumor, along with the top lobe of the affected lung, without the need for additional treatment. Once she recovered, Valerie was back to business as usual, even earning a 2010 Tony Award-nomination for her role in the Broadway production Looped.
“The year unfolded, and my doctor was just so thrilled with how well I was doing,” Valerie tells Coping. “I didn’t require any radiation or chemo. So that was great news!”
Valerie remained in good health until early 2013 when the sudden onset of stroke-like symptoms prompted her to seek medical attention. However, a battery of tests revealed that Valerie’s slurred speech and difficulty with remembering lines from the play she was rehearsing weren’t caused by a stroke. Instead, she was experiencing side effects from a recurrence of lung cancer to her brain.
Officially, Valerie was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a condition caused by the spread of cancer cells to the tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord (the meninges). The rare diagnosis has caused confusion in the media regarding her type of cancer, but Valerie is quick to clarify that she does not have brain cancer. “It’s lung cancer, but there’s nothing in my lungs,” she says. “However, the doctors found lung cancer cells in my meninges.”
With lepto, cancer cells don’t accumulate into solid tumors. It’s terminal, as Valerie explains, “because they can’t get to all the little culprits, the cancer cells, spread throughout my head and up and down my back.” Given the rarity of the condition, her doctors estimated that she would only have three to six months to live.
Despite a grim prognosis, the seasoned performer, who’s just as vivacious as the TV character that made her famous, hasn’t shown signs of slowing down anytime soon. With unwavering positivity, she’s survived two years beyond her doctors’ best predictions and has avoided any pain associated with the condition. “I can’t say I’ve suffered as some have,” she says. “I’ve been extremely lucky.”
Though she’s living with terminal cancer, it isn’t stopping her from living a full life. Armed with the support of her medical team and her husband, Valerie receives targeted therapy and makes use of complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and meditation. With her humor intact, she has continued to work steadily, performing on Broadway, making guest appearances on TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland and Hallmark’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, and starring in the UP original movie The Town That Came A-Courtin’. And at 74 years old, Valerie shined on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, proving that nothing can stop her from living her best life.
More from Coping’s Conversation with Valerie
What helps you stay so positive?
I’ve always been a positive person. If I’m feeling stress, or pain, or fear, I let myself experience it. I close my eyes, put my hands in my lap, and tell myself, “OK, feel what you’re feeling.” But I don’t stay in the negative. The first thing I think in the morning isn’t Oh, I have cancer. If I feel sad or if I want to cry, I do it. But I don’t spend a lot of time in it.
What message would you tell others who are battling cancer?
There’s absolutely hope! More hope than there has ever been. I’m 75, and when I was a kid, there was no talk of a cure. But now we have a way of targeting cancer with certain drugs, and these drugs win.
What advice do you have for living a full life, regardless of your situation?
Live in the moment. I say that to everybody, not just those who are battling cancer. Don’t deny what’s bothering you, but try to get through it quickly. Say to yourself, “I don’t have time for this!” Live moment by moment, and don’t let your mind keep chattering about how terrible things are. Sometimes you just have to put your mind on hold. Our minds can get in the way of us really living fully.
“I believe in visualization of winning. I imagine myself kicking the cancer cells on their little butts right out of my body,” she says with a laugh. On a more serious note, she adds, “It’s not so much about resisting death. It’s accepting that it’s there and then making sure that I’m living to my utmost potential.”
She’s defied the odds, but survival isn’t enough for the showbiz veteran. Valerie has teamed up with the American Lung Association as a spokesperson for their LUNG FORCE initiative to promote education and raise awareness about the often-overlooked disease. “I didn’t know that I, as a nonsmoker, could even get this disease. But I’ve learned that if you have lungs, you’re at risk,” Valerie says. “I’m devoting myself to speaking out as much as I can to educate women so they know that this is a real threat to their health. Anyone can get lung cancer, and no one deserves it.”
Learn more about the LUNG FORCE initiative and how you can get involved at LungForce.org.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2015.
Editor’s Note: Valerie Harper passed away on August 30, 2019.