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AARP The Magazine

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, Tony Cacciotti with daughter Cristina, age 6 (Courtesy of Valerie Harper)

Tony, Valerie and daughter Cristina at age 6. — Courtesy Harper-Cacciotti family

A few days after her hospitalization, Harper returned to Los Angeles, where her primary oncologist, Ronald B. Natale of the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, confirmed that the actress had an inoperable metastasis of her 2009 lung cancer — not brain cancer, as the media first reported.

Treating the disease would prove challenging because the blood-brain barrier, a collection of high-density cells that protects the brain from infection, also blocks many traditional chemotherapy drugs, rendering them ineffective.

Natale decided to try a drug called Tarceva, which targets a genetic mutation of Harper's cancer. He prescribed an off-label regimen, giving Harper massive, all-at-once "pulse" doses in weekly intervals, in hopes that a high-enough concentration would cross the blood-brain barrier. Harper is currently taking 10 Tarceva pills every seven days, and a recent MRI scan "was nearly normal," says Natale.

See also: Find out what became of your favorite child TV stars

"This is one of the more dramatic successes I've seen with this treatment." That's not to say the actress is out of the woods. Harper's form of cancer "almost universally becomes resistant to Tarceva after an average of 10 months," her doctor notes. So for now, Harper has been given the gift of time, and when the Tarceva stops working, says Natale, "there are other things we can try. We're just going to push as hard as we can."

Harper is certainly doing that, combining Western medical treatment with acupuncture and herbal teas she gets from a doctor of Asian medicine. She has also been practicing imagery, envisioning a tiny Tinker Bell-like version of herself moving through her meninges, tapping her cancer cells with a magical finger.

"They then become glowing little good cells," she explains with a giggle, "or, if they're not willing to give up their cancer-ness, they just turn into white lights. I talk to them, saying, 'Listen, you guys, this is dumb. We could live together. But you can't keep growing and crowding out the other cells. You're killing the host!'"

Living in the moment

On a breezy Sunday afternoon in late July, Harper and Cacciotti arrive at the racetrack in Del Mar, California, to attend a fundraiser for the Lung Cancer Foundation of America.

"I'm past my expiration date," Harper jokes as she addresses a small crowd before the horse races begin. "But really, I am holding my own, as you can see. My motormouth has not stopped! Seriously," she continues, "what I have is not curable. That's not the way with this disease, apparently. But who knows? This diagnosis makes you live one day at a time, and that's what everyone should do: Live moment to moment to moment."

Next page: Harper gears up for Dancing With the Stars. »

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