Valerie Harper Busts 5 Cancer Myths

cancer myths

This article provides How Valerie Harper busts 5 Cancer Myths. Some of us remember Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, the self-proclaimed “fat and frumpy” (and funny) friend of Mary Richard’s on Mary Tyler Moore, a sitcom popular in the 1970s. Younger folks might know her because of her well-publicized cancer diagnosis in 2013. And subsequent performance on Dancing with the Stars.  

Well, Ms. Harper at 74 is still very much alive, still very funny and hard fat and frumpy. Now that she’s outlived her initial prognosis, she’s lending her face. Not only face, but fame, and a positive attitude to a new cause called Lung Force. Launched by the American Lung Association (ALA) in partnership with CVS, the public health movement is making some noise about lung cancer to raise awareness of the disease, especially among women, and funds for research.

Along the way, Harper is clearing up some misconceptions many folks have about this deadly disease:

Myth #1. Valerie Harper Has Brain Cancer

If you thought Valerie Harper had brain cancer, you can be forgiven. Buried in the many media reports that screamed “brain cancer” was the fact that the non-small cell lung cancer she was diagnosed with in 2009 had recurred and metastasized to the lining of her brain. Although she was told she had three months to live, Harper has responded well to treatment and in her last full-body scan doctors confirmed that the cancer had not spread. But, as she says on her website (, “I am not cured. I am still a cancer patient and I continue to fight with the hope that a cure might be just around the corner.”

Myth # 2. Lung Cancer Strikes Only Smokers

The American Lung Association cautions against thinking you’re immune from cancer if you don’t smoke. According to the organization’s stats, “two–thirds of lung cancer cases are in those who have never smoked or have successfully quit smoking.” Valerie Harper is a perfect example. She’s a lifelong non-smoker and so was her mother, who died from lung cancer. Another high-profile non-smoker who died from lung cancer is Dana Reeve, wife of Christopher Reeve, who played Superman. Other lung cancer risks include exposure to radon, asbestos, and secondhand smoke. And scientists are now finding that people who have an inherited mutation of a certain gene have a high chance of developing lung cancer, higher even than heavy smokers.

Myth #3. Lung Cancer is Rare Among Women

This is the mother of myths. Since 1987, lung cancer has been the number one killer of women. And according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, women are more likely than men to develop lung cancer that’s not associated with smoking. Plus, that same inherited gene mutation that increases your risk for lung cancer is also more prevalent in women than men.

Myth #4. Lung Cancer is a Death Sentence

Lung cancer has a high mortality rate, but like other cancers it’s easier to treat when caught early. Doctors screen for the disease using a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan and often it’s found by accident when the patient is having a scan for something else. That’s what happened to Harper when she was initially diagnosed. She was having her chest x-rayed in anticipation of wrist surgery and her doctor found a small shadow on one of her lungs, which turned out to be a cancerous tumor. Thanks to that x-ray, she had the tumor removed and didn’t need chemo or radiation. Sadly, the cancer has returned, but she’s grateful for the four years between diagnoses.

Myth #5. Quitting Smoking is the Only Way to Prevent Lung Cancer

Of course, if you smoke, quitting is the best way to lower your risk for lung cancer. Men who smoke are 23% more likely to get lung cancer while women who smoke are 13% more likely. But your lifestyle and your environment also play a role. Check your home for radon, avoid secondhand smoke and other environmental pollutants, and eat lots of fruits and veggies. Animal studies have hinted at anticancer effects in produce, particularly crunchy veggies like cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli.

Health writer and editor Mary Bolster, the former Executive Editor of Yoga Journal, lives in Connecticut.

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  1. Pingback: 4 Surprising Facts About Melanoma You Should Know

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