"Her goal was to teach everybody with cancer how to live with dignity, and with as much fun as you can," says Sue Cameron
After Valerie Harper was first diagnosed with deadly brain cancer in 2013, she had a heart-to-heart talk with her close friend, Sue Cameron.
“The first thing she said was, ‘Why me?’ ” Cameron recalls in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “And then she thought about it and said, ‘Why not me? I’m not that special. Anyone can get something like this.’ “
For the next six years, Harper, who died on Aug. 30 at age 80, lived a life of remarkable resilience. “She was happy every single day because she was given six weeks to live,” notes Cameron. “Her goal was to teach everybody with cancer how to live with dignity, and with as much fun as you can.”
- For more on Valerie Harper’s life and legacy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
That’s why she went on Dancing With The Stars later that year. “She wanted to show everybody, ‘I know I’m dying but I’m dancing,’ ” says Cameron. “And that was very, very hard on her. She was very tired and she’d had some chemo already and her memory was being affected and she couldn’t remember the steps. And this was a former Broadway dancer.”
As Cameron recalls, “Valerie said, ‘I’ve been given six weeks to live, but I’m going to have the best time.’ And then she kept on living. She kept giving interviews saying, ‘I’m still here, still having a good time.’ “
Her ability to survive — and thrive — prompted a joke from their mutual friend, Joan Rivers.
“When Valerie didn’t die, Joan Rivers said, ‘She better die or she’ll lose all her fans,’ ” says Cameron. “And I told it to Valerie. She thought it was the funniest thing ever.”
Cameron met Harper 50 years ago at the first taping of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Cameron, then a young writer for The Hollywood Reporter, knew Harper would be a breakout star and the two became close friends. (Cameron wrote about Harper and other Hollywood legends in her 2018 memoir Hollywood Secrets and Scandals.)
Looking back, she credits two things which kept Harper strong and positive. “The first was Tony,” she says, referring to her husband Tony Cacciotti. “The second was world prayer. There was so much love and energy directed towards her. I have to believe because she was one of the most beloved figures in the entertainment world and that kept her well for so long.”
“But in terms of day to day, her husband loved her more than anything in the world,” says Cameron. “She was the center of his universe and he was determined to keep her alive. She would say, ‘I can’t die. I have to stay alive for Tony. I can’t give up.’ It’s an amazing love story. She believed he was keeping her alive and so did he.”
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Over the years, the two friends often joked about their compatibility and many adventures. “Valerie would say she’d marry me if only I was a boy,” says Cameron with a laugh. It’s one of the many memories she treasures of her dear friend.
“She was so important to me and her friendship meant so much,” says Cameron. “She was the least self-involved, most normal, most kind person I’ve ever known.”