‘Rhoda’ actress Valerie Harper living ‘fully’ despite brain cancer

Actress Valerie Harper. Credit: Reuters
Actress Valerie Harper.
Credit: Reuters

Actress Valerie Harper, star of the 1970s television comedy “Rhoda,” says she is determined to “live each day’s moments fully” despite a brain cancer diagnosis that doctors told her could bring death in a matter of days or in several years.

Harper, 73, who won four Emmy Awards for her signature sitcom role, said on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday that the reality of her illness hit home “when I heard the word ‘incurable.’”

“‘Incurable’ is a tough word, so is ‘terminal,’” she said with a laugh. The interview, taped from her home in Los Angeles, marked Harper’s first appearance on network television since she disclosed her cancer diagnosis in a People magazine cover story last Wednesday.

In that article, Harper said she learned in mid-January that she was suffering from leptomeningeal carcinomatosis — cancer in the membrane of her brain — and was given as little as three months to live.

In her televised interview with Savannah Guthrie of the “Today” show, Harper said her doctor told her she could live anywhere from a week, if for example she suffered a seizure, to a few months or even for several years, and that he had patients who had lived much longer than the prognosis.

Harper was a prime-time staple on U.S. television through most of the 1970s, first as the brassy but insecure neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern on the hit CBS sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The character proved so popular that Harper was given her own spinoff series, “Rhoda,” which ran for several more seasons on CBS.

“A lot of folks are calling (asking), ‘Can I come by the house?’ ‘Are you in a wheelchair?’, because they hear it as a death sentence, which it may be,” Harper said on “Today.” “But I’m not dying until I do. I promise I won’t.”

As to holding out hope against a seemingly grim fate, Harper, her voice hoarse due to a bout of laryngitis, said that beyond being hopeful, “I have an intention to live each day’s moments, fully.”

Harper recently completed a tour promoting her new autobiography “I, Rhoda” and starred on Broadway as Tallulah Bankhead in “Looped,” for which she earned a Tony Award nomination.

Harper, who underwent surgery for lung cancer in 2009, said on “Today” that the disease she is currently battling is “very rare” and was “hard to detect because it was diffuse. It’s all around. It’s not in one lump.”

She recounted feeling odd symptoms when she was working to take her “Looped” show on tour, noticing “this weird feeling in my jaw,” adding, “I vomited for no reason and wasn’t sick. And I thought, ‘That’s weird.’”

Despite the dire nature of her condition, Harper said she clings to hope.

“The thing I have is … very rare and it’s serious and it’s incurable … so far. So I’m holding on to the ‘so far.’”


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