"You could feel that they all knew this would be the last time they'd ever be together," Valerie Harper's friend Sue Cameron tells PEOPLE

By Liz McNeil
September 04, 2019 10:00 AM
TV Land

Several months after Valerie Harper was first diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013, she was asked by her Mary Tyler Moore Show costar Betty White to make a guest appearance on her sitcom, Hot in Cleveland.

White had invited not only Harper, but also her Mary Tyler Moore Show costars: Mary Tyler Moore, Georgia Engel and Cloris Leachman.

Harper, who died on Aug. 30 at age 80, had been told at the time she had only months to live. But her longtime friend, Sue Cameron, who accompanied her to the week-long taping, remembers how Harper always focused on the positive. “She was happy every single day because first she was given six weeks to live,” says Cameron. “Then it was three months. She wanted to show people how to live.”

  • For more on Valerie Harper’s life and legacy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

And so she embraced the chance to reunite with her costars and friends.

“Betty decided to make Valerie the star of the episode,” says Cameron. “This was a week-long Mary Tyler Moore reunion. Mary was very sick. She was almost blind and couldn’t find a way to walk in the scenes. She was always seated. She couldn’t read her lines, so people had to read them to her so she could learn them. Mary put herself out like you wouldn’t believe for Valerie.”

At one point, as the actresses were sitting around a dining room table, Cameron says “they started reminiscing about the show for 30 minutes.”

It was as if time stood still. And before the final taping, all of the women congregated in a small dressing room.

“Valerie went in their first,” says Cameron. “Then Mary, then Georgia, then Betty. Cloris was there as well. Mary started crying, then Valerie started to cry. I started to cry. Everyone started to cry.”

“You could feel that they all knew this would be the last time they’d ever be together,” she says. “It was probably one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Frederick M. Brown/Getty

Cameron included the scene in her 2018 memoir Hollywood Secrets and Scandals, which details her time covering the entertainment world as a journalist for the The Hollywood Reporter and the bonds she forged with some legendary stars.

She’d met Harper when The Mary Tyler Moore Show launched in 1969. “When I saw the pilot, I realized Valerie would be a breakout star,” she recalls. “She was so adorable and funny. I walked over to her after that taping and we hit it off.”

A five-decade friendship ensued — one full of joy, as well as heartbreak.

“In terms of death, Valerie completely embraced it,” says Cameron. “She said, ‘I’m doing it my way and I’m going to just live and live — until I can’t.’ Every day she would walk two miles by herself in Santa Monica and she would end her run at Starbucks.”

Valerie Harper
Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic

“I’m thrilled she made it to 80,” says Cameron. “While the loss is horrible, she just lived so beautifully. Her goal was to teach everybody how to live with cancer and do it with dignity and to have as much fun as you can. And that’s why she talked about it. She wanted it to be public. She wanted to help people.”

As Harper’s condition began to weaken about three months ago, she and Cameron kept up their friendship on the phone. “It was difficult for her to talk and to get out of bed,” says Cameron. “She said, ‘I can’t see you, but we can talk, honey,’ and so we did.”

True to form, she says, “Valerie wanted to hear everything that was going on in my life. She’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m doing okay.’ ”

Now that she’s gone, Cameron remembers what her friend said in her early interviews after she was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis in 2013. (The condition, which the star was diagnosed with just four years after she beat lung cancer in 2009, occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain, known as the meninges.)

“She said, ‘I’ve been given six weeks to live and if that’s the case, I’m going to have the best time and I’m going to show everybody how to do it,’ ” Cameron recalls. “And then, she kept on living. And when she gave interviews, she’d say, ‘I’m still here. I’m still having a good time.’ ”

The reunion episode is also airing Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET on getTV.