Why Valerie Harper Inspires Me and Many Other Cancer Patients

March 18, 2013

Harper has just published this memoir.

By Katherine O”Brien, Secretary and PR Chair, MBCN

I know that Valerie Harper isn’t Rhoda, her old character from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” But when I hear her name, I think of her in that role. I loved Rhoda’s brash attitude and her many sarcastic comebacks.

“Rhoda was the sass to Mary’s spunk, the head scarf to Mary’s beret,” writes EW’s Jessica Shaw. “She was so beloved that she transcended sidekick status and scored a show of her own.” 

In my mind, Valerie Harper is ageless–she will always be the same age as Rhoda on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” But of course that’s not the case. Harper is now 73 years old. She recently  announced she is  undergoing chemotherapy for brain mets. This past January she was diagnosed with  leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a  complication of her lung cancer in 2009. (Two to five percent of women with metastatic breast cancer experience leptomeningeal metastases (LM), read more here.)

Rhoda? Cancer? Brain Mets?  No way!

I was so sorry to learn of Harper’s diagnosis. “Inspiration” is a word that is often overused when writing about cancer patients, but I believe it applies here. No one would fault Harper if she preferred not to discuss her illness or her diagnosis. That’s her choice–as indeed we all have the right to determine what if any information we will share about our personal lives.

But she choose to be very open about having an incurable disease.

“This could draw more attention to cancer research. I think there’s an opportunity to help people,” Harper told  People magazine.

Harper, a nonsmoker, was  incredulous when she was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago. “I’ve since come to learn that more women are dying of lung cancer than [from] all the breast, colon and pancreatic cancers combined [according to statistics from the National Cancer Institute]. And many of them are nonsmokers…Society thinks lung cancer equals smoking. But when I told my doctor that I don’t smoke, he said that 20% of his patients are nonsmokers. He also sees people who quit smoking – and 20 years later, this disease bites them in the butt.”

Harper thought she had beaten the cancer but in  August 2012, she experienced a “belt-like sensation” across her midsection. Then in mid-January 2013, Harper experienced numbness in her jaw. Subsequent tests ultimately revealed leptomeningeal carcinomatosis.

“I just want folks to see me, that I’m OK, that I’m not suffering so far,” said Harper. “There may be pain. There may be a lot of things ahead, but whatever they are, they’re ahead. They’re not now.”

In the past week, Harper gave many interviews. Writer Donna Kaufman compiled “The 10 Most Inspiring Things We Learned from Valerie Harper”:

1. Don’t blame yourself for tragedy. “If you die, you’re not a failure,” Harper said on Today. ‘You’re just somebody who had cancer. And that’s the outcome.”

2. Live in this moment, right now. “I’m not dying until I do,” Harper told Today. “I have an intention to live each moment fully.”

3. Remember that death is part of life. “I really want Americans, all of us, to be less afraid of death,” Harper said on The Doctors. “Know that it’s a passage, but don’t go to the funeral before the funeral. While you’re living, live.”

4. Let yourself be sad — but stay hopeful. “I don’t mean this to be Pollyanna! I allow myself the grief,” Harper told Today‘s Savannah Guthrie, when asked if she ever felt sad. “What I’m saying is keep your consciousness, your thoughts open to infinite possibility and keep yourself open to miracles.”

5. Don’t give in to despair when there’s more pasta to eat. When Harper first heard her diagnosis, she said on The Doctors, “I broke down. I absolutely sobbed. I let myself do it. Then I said, ‘Okay, you’ve been the drama queen. Now get over it and make the pasta.'”

6. Deal with your battles in the way that makes sense to you. When one of the Doctors asked Harper why she was spending her final days on a press tour, she responded, “Dr. Travis, this is not for everyone. This is my way of dealing with it.”

7. Don’t live in denial. “I’m trouble,” Harper admitted in a video message for People, “but when the smoke clears, I’ll be standing. Until I’m not. And I’m ready for that, too.”

8. Don’t forget to live just because you’re dying. “‘Incurable’ is a tough word. A lot of people were calling — ‘Can I come by the house?’ ‘Are you in a wheel chair?’ — because they hear it as this death sentence,” Harper said on Today. “Which it may be. But I’m not dying until I do. I promise I won’t.”

9. Never be afraid of what’s next. “I don’t know what’s ahead, but I’m ready for it. Onward!” Harper told fans in her People message. “I love you. And know that I’m okay. I am okay on this venture.”

10. Keep your loved ones close. Harper says she’ll be spending her final months with her husband and daughter while she undergoes treatments to try and slow the progress of her disease. “My doctor said it’s incurable — so far,” Harper said on GMA. “And I love that possibility. We all need to live in infinite possibility.”

In addition to her inspiring words, Harper is taking this opportunity to campaign for universal health care. “Health care for all! I mean, I’m lucky: I have my union, I have the greatest husband in the world, and the wonderful Cedars Sinai hospital,” she told People, “and that should be for everybody. It shouldn’t just be for me.”

On a forum for people with lung cancer, one poster wrote, “Rhoda was on [television] about her terminal cancer, what an interview God bless her and her family for those of us who saw this. This gave me strength and understanding of the diagnosis. Talk about lung cancer being the number 1 killer in the US,  great stuff today.”

Harper’s message also moved people with metastatic breast cancer. “I found myself uplifted by the words of a woman with only three months to live,” wrote one participant on a board for people with Stage IV breast cancer. “She does not fear death, she is ready, but in the meantime, she will keep her friends and loved ones close and live her life. While we all know these words to be true, hearing them from someone most of us grew up laughing at and admiring really hit hard. I applaud her spirit and her bravery and I pray that her remaining days are everything she needs them to be, and that her passing will be peaceful.”

Me too.