"My knees are killing me," moans Valerie Harper, lifting her gold lamé gown and showing off two knees wrapped in heavy bandages. It's moments after her elimination on Monday night's Dancing With The Stars and Harper is cheerfully working the press line, flashing the smile that belies the crushing diagnosis she was given in January: That her lung cancer, which she thought she had beaten, had spread to the membranes surrounding her brain and that she had three to six months to live.
"I feel very happy that I was here for four dances with Tristan [MacManus]," she says. She just recently read an article about dealing with cancer that supported her time on the show. "It said dance, movement, is very beneficial," says Harper. "People used to say, 'Go home, rest, put your feet up.' And there are people who are suffering horribly with this disease, with pain in many parts of the body. But I have been extremely lucky. I got through Dancing With The Stars, didn't die on the floor, or fall." Then she smiles. "Tristan wouldn't let me fall. He would throw himself under me and pretend it was a lift."
Judge Carrie Ann Inaba is filled with admiration for what Harper accomplished. "It's baffling, in a way," says Inaba "Because this is not what we're taught to believe in when somebody gets sick. You don't go right back out there and do something in an even bigger way. But she did. Valerie hasn't lived this large in a long time. And I think it's really beautiful because it sends such a wonderful message to the viewers: It's never over until it's over."
Next week, Harper will go in for a brain scan that will tell her how the disease is progressing. She remains optimistic. "I don't have any symptoms. I might be living in a fool's paradise, you just don't know. I'll talk to my doctors and they'll show me what's going on — and let me know if the pills that I'm taking are working as well as I think they are."
She also has plans to act in a television movie that her husband Tony Cacciotti will produce. "He wants me to keep moving," she says. "When I got this diagnosis, it was really horrible. He said, 'Val, you've gotta keep working.' And I said, 'I don't want to work. I want to garden. Or let's go to Paris.' And he said, 'No.' And this show was the best thing I could've done. I have a whole new group of friends. Very interesting air, here, under the Trophy Ball." Then she turns to Tristan. "What's it called?" He corrects her. "Oh, yeah. Under the Mirror Ball."