Four-time Emmy Award-winner Valerie Harper, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer nearly five years ago and given three months to live, continues to beat the odds and take on screen roles.
“I’m still here,” Harper, 78, tells People magazine, relaxing in the Santa Monica, California, condominium she shares with her husband of 30 years, producer and former actor and fitness trainer Tony Cacciotti. “I still have cancer, but I’m okay and most of my days are good,” she says in the new issue.
Cacciotti, whom she lovingly calls “such a nudge,” cares for her full time. “He does everything for me, drives me everywhere, makes sure I’m eating healthy, walking and lifting weights,” Harper says. “Really, he’s the best nudge in the world.”
In January 2013, the actress — immortalized as Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff, “Rhoda” — was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare cancer in which malignant cells invade the meninges, the fluid-filled membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. After announcing the diagnosis publicly that March she underwent chemotherapy, and in June 2013 her doctor declared she was “pretty close to a remission.”
Now, years later, “It’s a miracle she’s still here,” her oncologist, Dr. Jeremy Rudnick, told People, explaining that Harper early on had been given a relatively new chemotherapy drug. Then earlier this year, after she had developed seizures and other issues, the actress successfully went on an experimental drug.
“Valerie developed this disease at a time when we keep coming up with stronger and better targeting drugs for her particular cancer,” Rudnick said. “The longer we keep her alive the more options we have.”
She has continued to work, appearing on-screen last year as a woman with Alzheimer’s in the short “My Mom and the Girl” and opposite Dick Van Dyke, Matthew Modine and Glenne Headly in the “Merry Xmas” segment of the ShortsHD compilation “Stars in Shorts: No Ordinary Love.” Her voice was featured on three episodes of “The Simpsons” this year and she’s recently taped voice parts for upcoming episodes of both that animated series and “American Dad!”
Harper had successfully fought lung cancer in 2009.