Battling incurable lung cancer, the celebrated TV star proves, with grace and humor, that each day is worth living to the fullest
by Meg Grant
Valerie Harper is sitting on a rose-colored sofa in the living room of her Spanish-style Santa Monica home, her life reflected in the things that surround her. On one wall hangs a modern, colorful painting of her TV alter ego, Rhoda Morgenstern, in trademark ’70s head scarf, and there are photos on every shelf of her husband, daughter and five stepchildren. A dining table is piled high with letters and gifts from admirers — flowers, a prayer shawl, a set of rosary beads.
Harper quickly realized that she and her husband of 26 years, Tony Cacciotti, 74, needed to get their affairs in order. “Tony said he didn’t want to discuss it,” says Harper.
The son of Italian immigrants, Cacciotti had as a child seen too many deceased relatives, including his own teenage brother, displayed in caskets in the family living room during wakes that lasted as long as three days. “He has a whole phobia about the coffin and death,” Harper explains. “He doesn’t go to funerals.”
Drawing on her emotional reserves, and philosophies she adopted earlier in life, Harper not only came to terms with her diagnosis but also helped her husband with his fears. “Valerie is a realist,” says Cacciotti. “And she worries more about others than herself. She worries about what’s going to happen to us when she’s gone.”
After some coaxing, Cacciotti agreed to see a lawyer to draft wills and health care directives, something the couple admit they should have done years ago. But when Harper told her husband that she wanted to be cremated, he dug in once again.
“The body is just a rooming house,” Harper says. “I don’t care. I said, ‘Go cheap. Go to the Neptune Society [a low-cost national provider of cremation services].’ A friend went that way, and it was fabulous. You go out in Santa Monica Bay, cast flowers, then the ashes. Something even came in the mail offering a $120 discount. I said, ‘Tony, we can get it if we order by Thursday.’ I was trying to make him laugh, but he didn’t think it was funny.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
Harper has always displayed a joie de vivre that audiences — and intimates — love.
“Valerie has the best attitude in the world,” says her former costar and good friend Betty White. “She’s so open about everything — it’s not like she’s trying to paint a false picture. She’s kept her sense of humor and balance. My beloved husband Allen Ludden [who died from stomach cancer in 1981] had that same attitude, and I swear it added a year we wouldn’t have had.”
Still, Harper admits to having low moments. “There are times when I cry. I’ll sit in the chair and feel the depression, let it seethe. Then it starts to go away, and I find myself laughing, saying, ‘Well, that was dramatic.’ ” A self-described agnostic, she attributes her ability to cope largely to est (Erhard Seminars Training), which she received in the 1970s from human-potential-movement proponent Werner Erhard.
“Est taught me that you should live in the joy of life, not worrying about the future,” says Harper. “And it taught me that I am part of everything. As physics has proven, we’re ultimately particulate matter, which means we are all one. That’s why racial and gender bias is so ridiculous.”
An activist for civil rights, women’s rights and the underprivileged, Harper is still fighting for causes she cares about.
“There’s such a humanity about Val,” says the prolific television director Jay Sandrich, who cast Harper as Rhoda. Since the late 1970s, Harper has served actively as a representative of the Hunger Project, which empowers rural women in Africa, Asia and Latin America to become self-reliant. This year friends from the project raised $200,000 in seed money to launch an auxiliary nonprofit, the Valerie Harper Women Leaders Fund, which will support potential female leaders in the developing world.
“I’ve been given a memorial while I’m still here!” Harper exclaims delightedly.
She and Cacciotti are also eager to advocate for more research into lung cancer. “People think lung cancer is all about smoking,” says Harper, “when more than 50 percent of the new cases are found in nonsmokers or people who quit smoking years ago.” They also want people to understand the importance of communicating life-and-death wishes with family members before it’s too late.
“Most people don’t do it because they think it’s never gonna happen to them,” says Cacciotti, “or that by talking about death you speed up the process.”
As the couple sit next to each other in their living room, Harper grasps her husband’s hand and says, “Tony, he’s been great. He’s faced major demons on this, where I haven’t. Tony’s courage and stamina — oh my God!”
“I’m trying to fool myself into accepting this,” responds Cacciotti, his dark, tired eyes filling with tears. “But it’s like a time bomb. At night when she’s sleeping, I’m on the lookout, watching her breathe. Valerie is just my best buddy in my whole life.”
“Honey, the doctors are happy, right?” Harper offers, attempting to lighten the mood. “They say I’m a strong girl. We’ll manage this and eke out some more time.” In fact, Harper recently accepted a role in a cable-TV movie and has signed on to compete on the new season of Dancing With the Stars.
“Anything could happen in the next six months,” says Cacciotti. “There could be a breakthrough in treatment.”
“Look, I was 73 when I got this news,” says Harper. “Not 43. Not 28 with little children. I don’t want to leave my daughter or this doll of a husband. But I have to be realistic. I’ve had a lot of great stuff — spectacular stuff — happen to me. I’ve got to not be a pig about life.”
She tosses her head back and laughs.
Meg Grant is West Coast Editor for AARP The Magazine.