The chances are that you would never have heard of this rare disease if it hadn’t struck a celebrity. In early 2013, Valerie Harper revealed that she had been diagnosed with an uncommon type of brain cancer known as leptomeningeal carcinomatosis.
The 73-year-old actress is usually associated with her role as Rhoda Morganstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s and a spin-off TV series called “Rhoda.” She indicated that doctors gave her only three months to live after diagnosing the illness, according to ABC News.
Harper apparently thought she was having symptoms resembling those of a stroke when she went to the hospital. Tests subsequently revealed that she had the rare disease, one that develops when malignant cells move into the fluid-filled membrane around the brain.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) indicates that leptomeningeal carcinomatosis develops in roughly 1 out of every 20 cancer patients. It is an illness that occurs as the result of the spread of a primary cancer in another part of the body, typically breast cancer, lung cancer, or melanoma. Doctors apparently found no primary site for Harper, however.
Cells from the primary tumor reach the leptominges, the two innermost layers of tissue that cover the brain and the spinal cord. Cerebrospinal fluid then carries them farther. Most patients have symptoms that appear to be the result of an injury to various nerves, as well as direct invasion of a tumor of the brain or spinal cord, changes in blood supply to the individual’s bloodstream, or the obstruction of pathways where cerebrospinal fluid normally flows.
Doctors often diagnose this rare disease by using lumbar puncture, though such testing fails to identify the condition in as many as 10 percent of affected patients. Sometimes radiologic imaging reveals masses or even hydrocephalus.
When patients receive no treatment, their median survival is between four to six weeks. The condition kills via progressive neurologic dysfunction.
Whenever possible, doctors strike for early treatment to preserve neurologic function. One type of treatment is applying radiation therapy to sites that are symptomatic or areas that are actually visible on imaging studies. NCBI indicates that chemotherapy can boost the median survival to between three and six months.
Harper was a cast member on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” between 1970 and 1974. She recently published her memoirs. Her treatment has included both radiation and chemotherapy. Despite the negative prognosis of her case of leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, she remains upbeat, concentrating on enjoying each of her remaining days to the fullest.