Valerie Harper Faces Rare Terminal Brain Cancer

In March 2009, Valerie Harper, author and actress best know for her work on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda," had her world turned upside down when the nonsmoker was diagnosed with lung cancer. After a noninvasive surgery to remove the cancerous tumor, Harper, 73, thought her life was back on track.

Going on to pen a memoir and star in a new one-woman show, by all accounts, she was correct. But a shocking diagnosis on January 15 derailed the iconic sitcom star’s plans.

Harper now finds herself in a battle with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane (called meninges) that surround the brain. Harper's oncologist Dr. Ronald Natale told People that leptomeningeal carcinomatosis accounts for approximately 2 percent of all cancers and is considered incurable and can prove fatal in as few as three months.

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Pairing Up With Other Cancers

According to Johns Hopkins, while it can be a primary or originating cancer, leptomeningeal carcinomatosis is usually a metastatic malignancy (primary cancer that spreads to other parts of the body) that often teams up with breast and lung cancer. A separate study conducted by Greek researchers says the disease is also a common metastasis of leukemia and lymphoma.

Symptoms tend to come on quickly and progress rapidly and often include:

  • Seizures
  • Blurry vision
  • Severe headaches
  • Feeling like you’re wearing a belt across your midsection

Harper reports first feeling the strange “belt-like sensation” last August and naturally went to the doctor. “I’m not a watch and wait kind of person, so I go every six months for my MRI because of the lung cancer,” says Harper. However, a round of tests failed to detect the brain cancer.

So she proceeded with plans for her one-woman show Looped. In mid January, numbness in her jaw required Harper to be hospitalized for more tests, including spinal taps. The current cancer diagnosis came just days later and included the news that cancerous cells had spread into her spinal fluid.

Symptoms and Stages of Lung Cancer

Slowing the Progress

According to the People article, Harper is currently undergoing chemotherapy to try to slow down progression of the disease. But because it’s difficult to get chemotherapy drugs into the meninges, there are "limitations” in treating the condition, says Dr. Jeremy Rudnick, Harper's neuro-oncologist.

Despite facing intense adversity, Harper maintains a strong resolve.

“When I came out of surgery [for the lung cancer] my husband stroked my head and said ‘Why you?’ and I told him ‘Why not me?’" she said in an interview last month. "I’m thankful I have health insurance and access to cutting-edge surgeons. Not everyone does, so maybe this will help shed light on the importance of early detection and treatment.” 

“No matter what, no one should ever just accept a death sentence or diminished life. There are so many avenues available for treatment and to enjoy life. No one should just give up,” she said.

Instead, Harper encouraged those living with cancer, as well as those who aren’t, to “pursue everything.”

“Don’t let it be your time before your time—even with cancer,” she said. “You’re alive, so be in the moment of your life. Don’t worry about what’s to come. I’m here now.” 

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