Cancer-free or not, actress Valerie Harper has already beaten long odds


Actress Valerie Harper arrives for the taping of a tribute to actress Betty White. (Reuters/Sam Mircovich)

Update: 3:01 p.m.: Harper has just explained how she misspoke about being cancer-free. Read about it here.

Original post:

Even if Valerie Harper was misquoted Wednesday about being "cancer-free," the actress who played Rhoda Morganstern on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" already has beaten very long odds in her fight against the disease.

Harper's cancer, leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, "is a very challenging disease, with a usually dismal prognosis," said Gabriel Zada, assistant clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of Southern California's Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital. Mean survival rates are three to six months for the disease, which affects the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

Closer Weekly quoted the star Wednesday saying she was "absolutely cancer-free" in what the magazine promoted as an exclusive interview. The headlines drew a very quick denial from Harper, 74, released through the Hallmark Channel, that the quote was "erroneous." It wasn't clear whether she was attributing the error to the magazine or herself.

"In response to a recent erroneous quote concerning my health, I am not 'absolutely cancer-free,'" Harper said in her statement. "I wish I were. Right now what I am is cautiously optimistic about my present condition and I have hope for the future."

But Zada said the mere fact that Harper is alive 13 months after receiving the diagnosis is remarkable. "Once you’ve developed leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, it’s almost impossible to say you’re cured. It’s very rare," he said.

What may have occurred, however, is that Harper's chemotherapy was effective enough to eliminate signs of malignancy in her cerebrospinal fluid, Zada speculated. That happens in 8 to 10 percent of people with the rare cancer, and is associated with a longer survival rate, he said.

If Harper wasn't misquoted, I also believe that the whole affair reflects the continuing difficulties doctors and patients have communicating with one another. Doctors talk about stats, trends and data. Hopeful patients seize on signs of progress. We have more work to do in this area.

Zada says he never tells patients how long they may live. Instead he offers historical data if they want it.

"We treat every patient as if they are going to be an exception," he said."There are responses to medications we can’t predict. But the overwhelming majority of patients won’t make it even a year. She’s already beaten the odds on that."

Lenny Bernstein covers health and medicine. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.

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