Valerie Harper: Actor, Author, and Lung Cancer Survivor

Actress Valerie Harper. Photo: Getty Images.

Actor, author, and lung cancer survivor Valerie Harper.
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A “complete accident” is how actor and author Valerie Harper, 73, describes her diagnosis of lung cancer in March 2009.

“I broke my wrist two years earlier and needed surgery to repair the injury,” says Harper. “My surgeon wanted to do a pre-op chest X-ray as part of the preparation for the surgery. I didn’t think a thing of it.”

The results of that X-ray upended Harper’s world. Suddenly, instead of prepping for her next role on Broadway, the Tony-nominated Broadway actor and star of iconic television shows like “Rhoda” and “Valerie’s Family” had to prepare to battle lung cancer.

“I got a call from my doctor who said there’s something on your lung in the X-ray and I needed to come in to see him.”

Her world turned on a dime

Harper and her husband, Tony Cacciotti, were stunned. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. I kept thinking ‘how did this happen?’”

“We were in the doctor’s office and saw in the X-ray that there was something on my top right lobe. It looked like a little shiny little moon or a dime,” says Harper, who says she's been a lifelong non-smoker.

“It didn’t have roots like a smoker’s tumor.”

Possible Causes for a Spot on the Lung

So instead of throwing herself into the role of Tallulah Bankhead on stage, Harper checked herself into the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles to have part of her right lung removed on St. Patrick’s Day, 2009.

“I had an amazing surgeon who pioneered the visually assisted thoracic surgery, or VATS, procedure. It’s like the orthoscopic surgery many people have to repair their knee,” she explains.

That revolutionary procedure, instead of the more common thoracotomy, an invasive surgery that involves a large incision and moving of the ribs, spared Harper scars and weeks of recovery.

“I don’t have any scars. They’re so small, you can barely see them. My mom had the same thing in the 70s and she had an incision between her breast that ran through her rib cage and around her back.”

The best outcome ever

Harper says she came out of surgery to face good news. “My doctor told my husband and me that I had the best outcome ever. That I did have to have the lobe removed but I wouldn’t need radiation or chemo.”

And she credits early detections with her favorable outcome.  

“It was very serendipitous since I hadn’t had a chest X-ray in years,” she says. “About 20 percent of lung cancer patients are non-smokers, so it’s time we stop putting this all on smoking and forgetting about all those nonsmokers who are still at risk.”

And because early detection saved her life, Harper is championing all women at least talk to their doctor about their lung cancer screenings.

Symptoms and Stages of Lung Cancer

“I’m not saying everyone needs to run out and have a chest X-ray. There are other diagnostic opportunities. But women need to realize this isn’t just a smoker’s disease. Nonsmoking women are getting lung cancer at an alarming rate.”

“My mom, a wonderful, dedicated nurse, had the same thing and she was also a nonsmoker. But she spent many hours in the break room where people did smoke. Hers could have been related to secondhand smoke. I lived with smokers for years. My former husband, Dick Schaal, was a chain smoker. So maybe there’s an environmental component that women need to be aware of.”

Not sitting Shiva

Harper hasn’t missed a beat since her surgery. She penned her memoir I, Rhoda and continues to live life to the fullest. “My doctor said ‘your lobe is gone, but Val, you’ll never miss it.’ The lung tissue is a miracle, the remaining lung fills in the cavity and on a recent MRI my lung looked normal. You can hardly tell part is missing and I’ve never had any problems getting winded or out of breath.”

She’s active professionally and physically and hopes to one day tackle her dream role: a gardener. After playing wise-cracking and weight-conscious, frazzled in suburbia, and a throaty over-the-top Broadway legend, the character Harper has her eye on is one with a green thumb.

“I’d love to have a gorgeous garden; I’m just an amateur. I see the yellow leaves on plants outside right now and I’m and dying to prune them. I guess I’m a hairdresser of sorts. Give me a pair of pruning shears,” she laughs.

Harper says she’s not anxious about her next acting gig. “I’m not dying to work, although if something came up that would be great. There are a few great looking pilots and I’m very lucky to have Tony producing things for me. I really enjoy theater.”

One place you won’t find her is waiting for a relapse.

“I’m of the thinking that we’re all terminal; no one is getting out of this alive. So you shouldn’t start sitting Shiva before it’s time. Live the best life you can. Be as healthy as possible.”

7 Reasons to Quit Smoking

An insidious disease

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), an estimated 159,480 people (87,260 in men and 72,220 women) will die of lung cancer in the U.S. this year. That accounts for roughly 27 percent of all cancer deaths. “More and more women are getting this insidious disease than ever before,” says Harper.

The ACS also says lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women—each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

The American Cancer Society’s guidelines for lung cancer screenings state that if you are ALL of the following you’re a likely candidate for lung cancer screening:

  • 55 to 74 years old
  • In fairly good health
  • Have at least a 30 pack/year smoking history
  • Are either still smoking or have quit smoking within the last 15 years

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