When actress Valerie Harper announced this morning that she had joined the latest cast of “Dancing with the Stars,” she told People magazine that she hopes it “might prove inspiring to people to see a 74-year-old woman with terminal cancer dancing.”
Harper was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, this past January and told by her doctors she had three to six months to live. While the cancer has receded a bit and Harper has been feeling more energetic in recent months, she still acknowledges that she won’t survive the disease.
“It’s not a case of if, but when,” she said. “And I can live with that.”
She’s also choosing to live with it on her own terms—by dancing up to four hours a day to learn routines that will be televised nationwide.
The notion of end-stage cancer patients living life to the fullest has been a growing trend that’s been a part of the hospice movement, according to Karen Fasciano, a clinical psychologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“One of the things I talk to terminal patients about frequently is living their lives according to what they value,” Fasciano said. Most have goals more limited than Harper’s, but many often want to serve as an inspiration for others facing health difficulties.
“It’s about exerting control,” Fasciano said. “They may not be able to control what the disease does to their body, but they can control how they live in the face of dying.”
Oncologists have become more flexible when dealing with cancers they can’t cure, allowing patients to, for example, postpone chemotherapy so they can go on a trip.
“One of my patients took his first trip to the Carribean with his girlfriend,” said Fasciano who counsels mainly young adults with terminal cancer. “He knew it would be his last vacation, and there was some risk involved in it but he was glad he went.”
A 19-year-old family friend with end-stage leukemia is continuing to live her life on her own terms insisting to her parents that travel plans and family parties continue on schedule. She toured Rome this summer on a Mediterranea cruise, took a plane by herself to visit my parents, and insisted that her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary last week be filled with smiles and laughter, rather than tears.
Those with children or grandchildren may simply be looking for ways to cherish their time with loved ones and to create mementos of themselves to leave behind so they’ll be remembered. One of my friends made a book for her husband and children filled with stories and memories of her days growing up and becoming a new parent.
“I think it’s a form of resilience,” Fasciano said. “Everyone has to have hope. Sometimes we have to move from hoping for a longer life to hoping for a peaceful death and something beyond that. It’s what religions are built around; it’s human nature to be hopeful.”