Harper, 78, admitted she is amazed at her own longevity while battling leptomeningeal carcinomatosis (LC), a rare complication of cancer affecting the brain and spinal cord.
Valerie Harper was given months to live in 2012.
But now, five years after her terminal brain cancer diagnosis, the acclaimed actress who starred in the Mary Tyler Moore Show is still going strong.
‘I’m still here!’ she balked in an interview with People.
Even her oncologist is surprised, and the only thing he can put it down to is the fairly new chemotherapy drug he gave her in a last-ditch attempt to give her a bit more time.
Valerie Harper (pictured far left with Mary Tyler Moore on the hit show in 1971) was diagnosed with incurable cancer in 2012. Five years later (pictured, right, in 2015) she is still going strong.
‘It’s a miracle she’s still here,’ Dr Jeremy Rudnick, her oncologist, told People.
‘Valerie developed this disease at a time when we keep coming up with stronger and better targeting drugs for her particular cancer.
‘The longer we keep her alive the more options we have.’
LC only affects five percent of cancer patients. It is the name for an unusual complication, in which the disease spreads to membranes in the spinal cord, rather than to other organs or brain tissue.
It means that the cancer cells are floating in cerebrospinal fluid, which can rapidly spread throughout the entire nervous system and is incredibly difficult to stop or control.
LC typically evolves from breast cancer, melanoma and lung cancer – which Harper, who also starred in the spin-off show Rhoda, battled and beat in 2009.
The most common symptom is mental confusion and a headache that feels like intense pressure. Some patients also experience a numb chin, issues walking and seizures.
Without treatment, patients are given about six weeks to live after being diagnosed with LC. Treatment usually gives patients three months at most.
Harper, however, has defied expectations.
‘I still have cancer, but I’m okay and most of my days are good,’ Harper said.
Harper pictured with Mary Tyler Moore on the show, before she starred in the spin-off Rhoda
The 78-year-old is pictured here in October this year, having survived five years longer than she expected
She said her husband of 30 years Tony Cacciotti, a producer and actor and personal trainer, is her full-time carer.
‘He does everything for me, drives me everywhere, makes sure I’m eating healthy, walking and lifting weights,’ she told the magazine. ‘Really, he’s the best nudge in the world.’
Treatments for LC are limited, and delivering drugs to the central nervous system is complicated.
Most patients will get a hole drilled in their skull, so that chemotherapy can be delivered intrathecally.
Harper was on an unidentified chemotherapy drug but switched to an experimental drug earlier this year after experiencing seizures.