Valerie Harper, the iconic actress who played Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and may have as little as three months to live, according to People magazine.
Harper, 73, who also starred in the spin-off “Rhoda,” told the magazine she has leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain.
Harper says she got the diagnosis after feeling numbness in her jaw during rehearsals for her one-woman show Looped on Jan. 11.
“(I) was rehearsing away, and then it was as if I had Novocaine,” she told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Jan. 21.
WHAT IS leptomeningeal carcinomatosis?
Leptomeningeal carcinomatosis is a metastatic disease, meaning cancer from one area of the body may have spread to another, in this case, the brain. Since 20 percent of the body’s blood flow goes to the brain, he added, the brain is a very common place for other cancers to go. However, most types of these metastatic brain cancers involve a solid mass, or tumor, whereas leptomeningeal carcinomatosis is different, and occurs in about 5 percent of cancers that spread to the brain.
Unlike other tumors, leptomeningeal carcinomatosis affects the coating of the brain and spinal cord called the meninges. The cancer is “literally sprinkled all over” the brain he said, and doctors sometimes refer to this on an MRI scan as “sugar-coating” the brain.
“It’s relatively rare,” said Cohen. “Unfortunately, in my line of work I see a couple a year.”
People with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis may experience dizziness, numbness on the side the body or trouble speaking. These symptoms may be caused by low-level seizure activity, because the brain is affected by the cancer.
Because the cancer does not present as one or multiple tumors like more common forms of brain cancer, Cohen said patients with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis don’t typically respond as well to chemotherapy. Doctors may have to use a catheter to give chemotherapy to the whole brain, but that carries a lot of side effects, and even then, the prognosis is about four to six months, he said.
Without any treatment, a person might only have a few weeks after diagnosis, he added.
“If you don’t treat this disease rapidly, it will grow like a weed in weeks,” said Cohen.
Dr. Jeremy Rudnick, Harper’s neuro-oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, gave a similar assessment to People.
“You have a train that’s moving 100 miles per hour, and what we’re doing is slowing down the train to five or 10 miles per hour [using chemotherapy drugs],” he said.