Pop Culture

Valerie Harper on cancer: 'I'm not dying until I do'

Ever since Valerie Harper announced her terminal cancer diagnosis last week, the former Rhoda Morgenstern from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda" has been the subject of intense discussion and some early mourning.

The 73-year-old sat with TODAY's Savannah Guthrie at her Los Angeles home, and on Monday talked about the illness (she was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a form of cancer that strikes the membranes surrounding the brain), her memoir "I, Rhoda," and what she continues to savor about life.

"It is very rare," she said of the cancer diagnosis. "It was hard to detect because it was diffuse. It's all around. It's not in one lump."

The reality of her illness didn't hit, however, until Harper heard the word "incurable." "'Incurable' is a tough word," she said with a chuckle (despite some laryngitis). "So it is terminal."

Harper was working hard to take her Tony-nominated performance in "Looped" on the road when she went to the doctor with some odd symptoms. "I had this weird feeling in my jaw," she said. "I vomited for no reason and wasn't sick. And I thought, 'That's weird.'"

She wasn't the only one who was left reeling by the diagnosis -- her husband of 34 years, Tony Cacciotti, "got hit like a ton of bricks."

The couple sat down together for part of the interview. "Just try to live your life ... every day, feel strong and be strong for that person," said Cacciotti about how he's trying to assist his wife. "We're living our lives, and we're extremely happy. "

Just how long Harper has isn't certain -- her doctor has told her a week, three months or years, and she is receiving chemotherapy. Still, she's got to do what many people only say they will: Live each day as if it could be her last.

That said, she added, "I'm not dying until I do," adding that she remains "hopeful." "More than hopeful, Savannah. I have an intention to live each ... moment fully."

And while she says she's "ready to say bye-bye" if that's what it comes to, she's holding tight to hope: "The thing I have is -- is very rare and it's serious and it's incurable ... so far. So I'm holding on to the 'so far.'"

Tune in Tuesday to TODAY for more from Valerie Harper.

  • Slideshow Photos

    David Livingston / Getty Images North America

    Image: Valerie Harper Book Signing For "I, Rhoda"

    Valerie Harper

    The Emmy Award-winning star of "Rhoda" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" boasts an acting career that dates back to the 1950s.

  • Image: Valerie Harper Book Signing For "I, Rhoda"

    Valerie Harper

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    Actress and author -

    Valerie Harper, seen here signing her book "I, Rhoda" in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, 2013, announced in March that she has terminal brain cancer. "I've had a good run," Harper, 73, told People magazine. "What more could I ask for?"

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Image: Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper

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    Pinching a pal -

    Harper mugs with Cloris Leachman in 2011. The two actresses co-starred together on the 1970s hit "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," with Harper playing Mary Richards' best friend Rhoda Morgenstern, and Leachman playing landlady Phyllis Lindstrom.

    AP / AP
  • Image: Actors gather to honor actress Betty White

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    Mary's gang -

    Harper and more members of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" cast reunited in 2008 when co-star Betty White, who played Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. From left, the cast members are Gavin MacLeod, Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore, White, Harper, and Ed Asner.

    Reuters / Reuters
  • Mary Tyler Moore, Edward Asner, Georgia Engel, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod and GEORGIA ENGEL

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    From one great ensemble to another -

    "Mary Tyler Moore" cast members MacLeod, Leachman, Moore, Harper, Georgia Engel and Asner present the award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series at the 2007 Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. The award that year went to the cast of "The Sopranos."

    AP / AP
  • Image: Valerie

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    Family affair -

    Harper starred on her own 1980s family-themed sitcom, which changed titles from "Valerie" to "Valerie's Family" to "The Hogan Family." Josh Taylor played her husband, a pilot, with Danny Ponce, Jeremy Licht and Jason Bateman as her sons.

    NBCU Photo Bank / NBCU Photo Bank
  • Image: (FILE) American TV Actress Valerie Harper Diagnosed Terminal Brain Cancer Valerie Harper And Red Buttons

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    Comedy crossing generations -

    In 1982, Harper posed with legendary comedian Red Buttons in Los Angeles.

    Getty Images  / Getty Images
  • Image: (FILE) American TV Actress Valerie Harper Diagnosed Terminal Brain Cancer Valerie Harper

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    Colorful and classy -

    Harper was long known for her colorful use of head scarves, as seen here in this image from her "Mary Tyler Moore" spinoff, "Rhoda," in 1975.

    Getty Images  / Getty Images
  • Image: (FILE) American TV Actress Valerie Harper Diagnosed Terminal Brain Cancer Harper Filming Rhoda

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    Name in lights -

    Harper, shown here in 1975 at the set of "Rhoda," began with the character of Rhoda Morgenstern on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1970. Her character, Mary's best friend, became so popular that from 1974-1978, she starred in the "Rhoda" spinoff, which took the character away from Mary in Minneapolis and back to her hometown of New York. Although Morgenstern was famously Jewish, Harper herself is Catholic.

    Getty Images  / Getty Images
  • Image: (FILE) American TV Actress Valerie Harper Diagnosed Terminal Brain Cancer Rhoda

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    Friends forever -

    Harper and Moore share a laugh in 1975. After Harper left for "Rhoda," she still made appearances on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." In 2000, the actresses revisited their characters for the TV movie "Mary and Rhoda." In the film, both women are single with college-age daughters and living in New York. Fans were critical of the movie because it barely referenced the universe of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

    Getty Images  / Getty Images
  • Image: (FILE) American TV Actress Valerie Harper Diagnosed Terminal Brain Cancer Rhoda

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    All together now -

    The "Rhoda" cast featured Harold J. Gould and Nancy Walker as Rhoda's parents, Julie Kavner as sister Brenda, Harper, and David Groh as Rhoda's husband Joe.

    Getty Images  / Getty Images
  • Harper Asner

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    Emmy winners -

    Harper and "Mary Tyler Moore" co-star Ed Asner won Emmys for best supporting actress and actor in 1971. Harper would also win the supporting actress Emmy in 1972 and 1973, and then the Emmy for lead actress in 1975 once she'd moved on to "Rhoda."

    AP / AP

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