In January, Valerie Harper was told she had three months to live. Doctors had successfully removed a lung tumor in 2009, but the cancer cells had moved to her brain. Now, 10 months have passed since that diagnosis, and the TV icon is not only alive and well, she’s more active than ever. She participated in this season’s “Dancing With the Stars,” and has a Broadway show, television movie and two series in the works.
“I got a very excellent brain scan report on Oct. 13 that showed that I was continuing to show improvement. God knows why. I was supposed to be dead in March,” Harper quipped.
Having defied the medical odds, the 74-year-old actress is seizing the opportunity to make a difference. November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and Harper and writer-producer Marta Kauffman are leading the charge to raise funds for research into finding a cure.
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has created a clinical study around Harper to track her unusually positive reaction to her medication. She’s also in talks to create her own lung and metastasizing cancer foundation.
Kauffman, the co-creator of “Friends,” is a board member of the Lung Cancer Foundation of America, and one of the first major industry fi gures to support the cause. In September, she hosted the foundation’s “Bring on the Change” event to draw attention to the disease, and to challenge the misconception that it’s a smoker’s illness — 60% percent of new patients, including Harper, are nonsmokers.
“Because of the stigma associated with lung cancer, the dollars don’t go to lung cancer research,” Kauffman explained. “So we are punishing victims of this cancer twice: once because they get this awful disease, and then again because we don’t have the funds to do the research to save enough lives.”
Foundation president Kim Norris reached out to Harper earlier this year to help clear up media misconceptions that she had brain cancer. Norris — a lung cancer widow and patient advocate of 11 years — said the new treatment options that have become available over the past fi ve years, including targeted therapy and immunotherapy, are in desperate need of research funding.
Harper is no longer dwelling on her illness, but planning for her future.
“As time goes by, I don’t think of (the cancer) first thing in the morning,” she said. “For the first few months, I was waking up (and thinking), ‘Oh my god, I’ve got cancer. Why me?’ ” She stopped for a beat to consider. “Why not me? she asked. “A 4-year-old with leukemia; why her?”
(Pictured: Marta Kauffman, left, and Valerie Harper are working together to diminish the stigma of lung cancer.)