Valerie Harper: I Live Life In The Moment Because That's All I've Got
On January 15, 2013, I sat in a hospital room surrounded by my husband, Tony, my daughter, Cristina, and a handful of my closest friends. My girlfriend Nicole had brought me an adorable little stuffed teddy bear with hearts all over it. Everyone in the room had forced smiles on their faces, including the bear. I could tell something bad had happened but I didn't know the doctor was about to tell me that I was going to die in three months.
This was not the first time I had been blindsided by cancer. In 2009 I went in for wrist surgery and walked out with a diagnosis of lung cancer. At the time I had no symptoms. I had never smoked. But lung cancer is what killed my mother and mine was malignant, too. On St. Patrick's Day that year a surgeon removed a lobe of my lung and I had the best possible outcome: All of my scans came back clear.
This time around I wasn't so lucky. I knew something was wrong because I started to have a funny, tightening sensation around my midsection. And while I was in New York City rehearsing for a play, my jaw became numb and I collapsed. I thought I'd had a stroke, but instead I was told my previous lung cancer seemed to have metastasized. Now I had a rare and vicious form of cancer called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. It's when the diseased cells spread into the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Then the doctor hit me with that word, "incurable." It was devastating.
At first I did a lot of crying, and a lot of clearing out of my things. A friend even asked me if she could have one of my Emmys. I said no. I have four Emmys [three for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and one for Rhoda] and I didn't want to break them up. I feel they should go somewhere together, like to the Smithsonian or the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. I also started reading books like Proof of Heaven. Do I have a picture in my mind of what Heaven will be like, with a white light and all of that? No, not exactly, but I do think it will be another adventure.
My doctor put me on an aggressive course of a drug called Tarceva. I'm not in pain. I drink a special tea -- a Chinese medicine made of granulated herbs -- and I stretch, lift weights, and walk. Every eight to 10 weeks I get a brain scan and so far my doctors are pleased. They say there is less evidence of the cancer, which looks like baby white snakes on the scan. Still, there's no cure for what I have -- at least not yet. I'm told my form of cancer quite often becomes resistant to Tarceva after an average of 10 months.
It was my husband who suggested I go back to work, because that's what I love to do. And my doctors were supportive. But when I was offered Dancing With the Stars last year, my reaction was, Why would I do this now? Tony said, "Because you have cancer. Think of the people out there struggling with tremendous challenges." It was my opportunity to give other people hope. My body ached while I did the show, but it had nothing to do with the disease. I may not feel 74, but my knees sure did.
My mom was a nurse who used to tell me, "Kid, put your buns together and do it," whatever "it" happened to be. That guided me when I danced on Broadway and when I faced rejection after rejection as a young actress. But now surviving cancer gives me an opportunity to look for new ways to contribute. What I really must do now is answer all the letters from people who've reached out to me since my diagnosis. Sometimes, if I'm walking down the street and I see someone who looks like they are hurting, I'll stop and ask if they're okay. Once I talked to a girl who told me her father had just died. It wasn't me being a do-gooder. It was me being aware, being in the world, and putting my own fear aside.
I heard that someone asked Mother Teresa what was most important in her work. I thought she'd say the Rosary but she said, "My nuns and I take very good care of ourselves so we can tend to the lepers and do whatever we need to assist." If you're strong, or at least not hurting, you can inspire others.
I don't believe in staying stuck in the past or getting hung up about the future. I live life in the moment because that's all I've got. I try to enjoy myself, even with this disease. I've turned my cancer medicine into an acronym. Now I call it "To Aggressively Remove Cancer Everywhere, Valerie Announces." I'll do visualizations: I'll picture Tinker Bell going around my brain treating the damaged places.
I even talk to my cells. I say, "You guys. We need to coexist. If you don't grow crazily, we can manage this. Otherwise, you're killing the host. What's your life going to be?" I'm trying to make it funny, but it's really a form of prayer.
I don't spend time listening to the negative voices in my head. When I was younger I'd berate myself: You're fat, you're not a good dancer, you'll never have a boyfriend. I don't sweat that kind of stuff anymore. Now every day is a miracle. I've also learned that if something is painful or upsetting, you shouldn't hide from it. You should make it part of your life instead.
Tony and I went to a cemetery in Los Angeles to find plots last year. It was our way of facing the situation, which is why we also did our will and trust. This adorable lady showed us around. The place is called Hollywood Forever and I had been there as a young woman to look at the graves of famous stars. It was gorgeous -- full of flowers with all these peacocks running free. We found a spot close to a lake and the lady said, "Look up, there's the Hollywood sign." I just about fell down. I thought, this is where I'm going to spend eternity, and with Tony at my side. I loved it.
-- As told to David Hochman