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Saying Hello to Valerie Harper

When the classic sitcom star's brain cancer was diagnosed in March, everyone wrote her off. But her dance isn't over yet.

By John Stark

When I heard last March that incurable brain cancer had been diagnosed in Valerie Harper and that she had only months or weeks to live, I wrote a blog about it. Like so many of my generation, I was in love with her. To me, and most boomers, she was always Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Richards’ next-door neighbor and best friend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The title of my story was “Saying Goodbye to Valerie Harper.”
My longtime friend, Kathy, who lives in San Francisco, called me after the story came out. She was upset about my headline. “How can you say goodbye?” she said. “You don’t know for sure.”

But I did know, I argued. Countless media stories had written her off. “You don’t survive what she has,” I told Kathy.
But Kathy was right. People do survive cancer or at least get a reprieve. I’ve been around long enough to know friends who have defied their diagnoses.
I owe Harper a big apology.

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On Monday night the four-time Emmy winner was a contestant on the season premiere of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. I had no idea she was in the lineup. I was channel surfing when I landed on the show. 
At 74, and wearing a flowing blue gown, she looked, in Rhoda’s words, “gorgeous, kid.” She and her partner, Irish hunk Tristan MacManus, performed a slow, dreamy fox trot to the 1961 Drifters hit “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Corny as it sounds, the song’s lyrics made me think of how she made me laugh when I’d watched her on The Mary Tyler Moore Show so many years ago. “Every time our little world seems blue/I just have to look at you/and everything seems to be some kind of wonderful.”
In a pre-recorded interview, Harper told viewers: “At the beginning of this year I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was told I have three months to live. I was given a death sentence and here it is eight, nine months later and I’m way past my expiration date and I’m dancing.”
More than dancing. She’s getting a grueling workout. In preparation for the first competition, she’d been rehearsing for two weeks, four hours a day. It's been reported that she has arranged her rehearsal time to work around the side effects of the powerful anti-cancer medication she’s on.

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Harper wasn’t the best celebrity dancer of the night — the top score went to Glee’s Amber Riley and her partner, Derek Hough, who rocked the house with their cha cha cha. But it was Harper who got a standing ovation from the studio audience.
I was in tears, like everyone else who saw her perform.
About her decision to appear, Harper told People magazine: “I feel much better, and my brain scans are looking better, too. The doctors tell me there’s less evidence of cancer, which is very unusual. However, they both say it’s not a case of if, but when. And I can live with that.”

I would have thought I'd be writing her obituary at this point. Her next appearance on Dancing With the Stars is this Monday night. Under the show's new format, it's also the elimination round.

“It’s good to be alive and even better to be dancing,” Harper told host Tom Bergeron after completing her fox trot.
Hang in there, kid. I’m not about to say goodbye.

John Stark is a veteran writer, editor and journalist who lives in Palm Springs, California. He can be reached at [email protected]. Read More
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