Sept. 3, 2019 -- Best known as BFF Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, television, stage and screen actress Valerie Harper has died. She was 80.
Harper, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013, had been hospitalized in June after she was found unconscious backstage at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, where she was performing, according to ET Online. At the time, Harper’s husband, Tony Cacciotti, said he had been told to put Harper in hospice, but he refused to do so and cared for her at home.
“We will continue going forward as long as the powers above allow us, I will do my very best in making Val as comfortable as possible,” he wrote in a July Facebook post.
Harper died Friday, Aug. 30.
Harper was vocal about her diagnosis with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a cancer complication that affects how well your nerves work and has a poor prognosis. Lung cancer from 2009, which Harper was told had been cured, had spread to the meninges, the sac that covers the brain and spinal cord. In January 2013, doctors told her that she had 3 months to live.
Harper was diagnosed after falling ill during a rehearsal for Looped, a Broadway play about the colorful American actress Tallulah Bankhead. In an interview in TheNew Yorker, she said she knew something was wrong because she was slurring her words and her face felt numb -- symptoms that can point to leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. After ruling out a stroke, doctors began tests that turned up the cancer.
That same month, Harper’s autobiography, I, Rhoda, was issued by Simon & Schuster. In the book, Harper detailed her illness and recovery from lung cancer.
In an interview with the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie in March 2013, Harper said she was open about her illness, saying, “it feels awful damn good to be open about it, face it, and see what you can do. If you die, you’re not a failure. You’re just somebody who had cancer. And that’s the outcome.”
Guthrie asked, “You're not saying goodbye?"
“Oh no,” said Harper. “... What I'm saying is keep your consciousness, your thoughts open to infinite possibility, and keep yourself open to miracles.”
What is leptomeningeal carcinomatosis?
Also called cerebral carcinomatosis, it is a rare complication of cancer that happens when cancer cells spread to the leptomeninges, a membrane covering the brain and spinal cord. It affects about 5% of people who’ve had a solid tumor cancer -- especially of the breast, lung, or skin.
People treated for leptomeningeal carcinomatosis survive 3 months on average, but half may live 6 to 9 months. Fewer than 5% survive for 2 years, says medical oncologist Otis W. Brawley, MD, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. According to one study, women with this form of cancer tend to survive longer than men.
A diagnosis may be made with an MRI, which might detect inflammation of the meninges and, if there are enough of them, cells that “glow white,” says Brawley.
What can’t be seen with a brain scan will likely be seen in nerve disorders, he says.
“The most common [symptom] is people having trouble with eye movement, such as their eye can’t move upward,” says Brawley. Weakness or numbness of the head and neck, headache, vomiting, and problems smelling or hearing are also symptoms.
The goals of treatment for leptomeningeal carcinomatosis include improvement or stabilization of the patient's neurologic status, prolonging their survival, and palliative care.
Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Drugs can be injected into the spinal fluid or delivered to the spinal fluid via a “reservoir” that can be implanted under the skin, says Brawley. Radiation to the head and spinal cord is another option, generally if the cancer doesn’t respond to chemotherapy, he says.
Treatment can slow down the symptoms, he says, noting that one of his patients with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis was alive and well 10 years after being diagnosed.
During an interview with HuffPost Live In November 2014, Harper attributed her survival to a regimen that included the drug Tarceva, which is approved for treatment of advanced-stage non-small-cell lung cancer and advanced-stage pancreatic cancer. Her doctors had told her the drug, which blocks or slows a protein that causes cancer cells to divide and grow, tends to stop working after a year, but at that point, Harper had been taking it for over a year and a half.
“I know that has been at the cornerstone of my improving,” Harper said. Diet, exercise, acupuncture, and imagery therapy had also been central to her good health, she said.
Raising research funds to explore new treatments -- and raising awareness of lung cancer as the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths in women -- are goals of Lung Force, an initiative of the American Lung Association, CVSHealth, academic institutions, and drug companies that Harper joined forces with.
“Lots of things are on the lab table that look promising, but we don’t have the funds,” Harper said. “I’m so happy to invite other people to stand together.”
Valerie Harper’s Career
Harper had an illustrious stage and dance career before she was hired in 1970 to play Rhoda, an earthy bohemian to Mary Tyler Moore’s uptight, guileless career woman. Her trademark look was a colorful headscarf that accentuated her dark, expressive eyes. She won a clutch of Emmys and a Golden Globe for her work in the popular sitcom, which ran until 1977.
Harper went on to star in her own show, Rhoda, in 1974, for which she also won accolades, along with an Emmy and a Golden Globe. She appeared in several feature films alongside comedic greats Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball.
While she also starred in an NBC sitcom, Valerie, it was short-lived. In 1987, a year after filming began, she was fired (and subsequently won a lawsuit for breach of contract), but the show went on without her as Valerie’s Family with Sandy Duncan. That show wrapped up in 1991.
Harper married twice, first to actor Richard Schaal, whom she divorced in 1978, and then to Cacciotti, whom she married in 1987 and with whom she adopted a daughter, Cristina Cacciotti.
In October 2013, Harper was eliminated from competition on ABC-TV’s Dancing with the Stars. Her last dance, a waltz with dance partner Tristan MacManus, was performed to the survival anthem “Carry On” by the band Fun.
“I’m ready. I’m ready to go,” she told People magazine in May. “Maybe that’s the secret. That I’m absolutely -- I don’t want to, my God, I want to live to be 102.
“But I am not banking on anything, really, because we shouldn’t,” she added. “We don’t know what’s around the corner. I think you just take each day and get the best out of it and do what you can and have fun.”