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Valerie Harper: Fearless, Funny and Footloose

Battling incurable lung cancer, the celebrated TV star proves, with grace and humor, that each day is worth living to the fullest

Valerie Harper and her husband (Jeff Lipsky)

"This diagnosis makes you live one day at a time, and that's what everyone should do," says Valerie Harper, with her husband, Tony Cacciotti. — Jeff Lipsky

Finally Cacciotti came clean with Harper about his reluctance. "I wanted to be buried next to her," he recalls quietly. "That meant I had to muster my fear and deal with the cemetery thing."

See also: The AARP Brain Health Center

So it was that one afternoon in June, the couple paid a visit to Hollywood Forever, located smack in the middle of Tinseltown, where folks like Rudolph Valentino and Cecil B. DeMille have been laid to rest. There's plenty of green, and the place hosts a classic film series frequented by twentysomethings who come with coolers and blankets.

Although Cacciotti refused to enter the main funeral home, he toured the property by golf cart. After the management assured him that a bench could be placed graveside so he could sit and visit Harper until both were in the ground, the couple signed up for a double plot. Says Harper, "We have a fabulous view of the Hollywood sign!"

As it turns out, Harper had visited the cemetery decades ago.

The actress, who started her career as a dancer, took ballet lessons in 1950 at a studio near Hollywood Forever; she and a girlfriend once spent an afternoon strolling its gardens. She now could not be more enthusiastic about it being her final resting place: "They've got peacocks," she says. "They're tame and come right up to you."

From her living room couch, Harper imitates the peacock cry in high volume: "Ahhhhhhhhryaa! Ahhhhhhhryaa! And then they open up their enormous tails. It's a life-giving place."

The cancer diagnosis

Harper, who has never smoked, was actually diagnosed with early lung cancer back in 2009. (Her mother, also a nonsmoker, died of the disease.) Harper's surgeon removed a lobe of her lung, and, after repeated scans of her chest came back clear, she kept the diagnosis quiet and went on with her life.

But at the beginning of this year, while rehearsing her Tony-nominated Broadway play, Looped, in New York, Harper suddenly couldn't remember her lines and had trouble speaking. She was rushed to the hospital, where a brain scan revealed a scattering of suspicious cells in her meninges, the thin, Saran Wrap-like layer of tissue that surrounds the brain.

When doctors informed Cacciotti that they suspected Harper was suffering from leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, with an average survival rate of three months, Cacciotti asked their daughter, Cristina, now 30, to give Harper the news.

"Tony just couldn't do it," Harper says. "Cristina doesn't have any hang-ups about death. When my stepmother, whom I love so much, died, Cristina cried, but then said, 'Well, she's gone on. She's in heaven.' Cristina is an old soul."

Next page: Keeping a healthy attitude and living in the moment. »

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