Why Valerie Harper and Kellie Pickler are teaming up

In early 2013, doctors told Valerie Harper she probably only had a few months to live. The actress, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, had experienced a major setback: Doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized to her brain.

Now more than a year later, she's using her experience as a platform to help spread the word about lung cancer. On Tuesday, the 74-year-old former "Mary Tyler Moore" star helped launch Lung Force, a new national movement led by the American Lung Association and CVS Caremark to unite women against lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in women, but only 1 percent of women named it as a cancer that's top-of-mind for them, found the American Lung Association's new survey of 1,000 American women. Every eight minutes a woman in the United States dies from the disease, according to the organization.

That's the reason Harper became involved with Lung Force. "Now that I have cancer -- lung cancer -- and I'm fighting, I've learned so much about it, and I was woefully uneducated and I want to help spread the word through this great endeavor," Harper told CBS News.

Pickler, who also attended and performed at the Lung Force event in New York, spoke about her grandmother, who died from the disease.

"She was the one that I called Mom," Pickler said. "She was diagnosed with lung cancer back in 2002 and she died instantly. She died the very next day... I got a little emotional performing a song so personal that I wrote with some friends of mine about my grandmother. Just being in the room here today with lung cancer survivors as well as other people who have lost loved ones from lung cancer, just made it more emotional."

"She was such a woman of God -- such a woman of grace and forgiveness," Pickler continued. "She just was so caring. She was a caretaker...She loved everyone. I would want people...to see my grandmother in me. So, I definitely strive to be more like her. She was an amazing woman."

490057881.jpg
Kellie Pickler and Valerie Harper step out in New York City for the American Lung Association as the organization launches its Lung Force initiative.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

The biggest misconception about lung cancer, Harper says, is that it's only caused by smoking. "I never smoked in my life. Neither did my mother. And so many women I meet whose mothers or aunts or whoever who have gotten lung cancer were no-time smokers. I've had a lot of second-hand smoke and I'm older," Harper said.

Harper says she's grateful to be alive today: "I thought I was over and out. Mine's called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. It's incurable. It's terminal. And it's in a tiny space -- a huge area all around the brain and up and down the spine. But it's small area where the spinal fluid is. It's microscopic. You can't see it. It isn't lumps that they can say, 'Oh we can zap that.'"

Harper recently made headlines after Closer magazine quoted her as saying she was "cancer-free." But Harper says that's definitely not the case: "I was going to treatments every few weeks, then every few months...This is not a curable thing yet."

In the mean time, Harper isn't slowing down any time soon and says she feels lucky to have good people around her. "I have this wonderful husband," she said. "I'm working. So I'm not retired. But we've had a very good life in that we've been in show business. You work when you work...My husband is the greatest guy in the world."

Harper, who appeared on "Dancing with the Stars" last year, revealed she's been offered a couple of Broadway shows but wants to make sure she can do it "properly" before committing.

When asked how she's feeling these days, Harper said, "I'm happier because I had to face what all of us try not to face: that we're going to die. It's a fact. None of us are getting out of this alive. We're all terminal. What you need to do is embrace that reality and then live full."

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.