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The cancer Valerie Harper really has

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Story highlights

  • Valerie Harper's lung cancer spread to the membrane system around her brain
  • She was diagnosed in January with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis
  • Expert: Treatment reportedly is working to slow the disease, but cancer will continue to spread

"Valerie Harper is facing a devastating diagnosis: terminal brain cancer," a People cover story from March started. "Her doctors say she has as little as three months left to live."

Then in August, the actress' doctor told the "Today" show that Harper was "pretty close to remission."

The media took it from there.

Yet after Harper was named a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars" on Wednesday, she made a few clarifications.

"I have lung cancer," she told CNN. "It is situated in the lining of the brain. It's not even in the brain."

And "my lung cancer doctor says, 'Valerie, we don't even use remission.' "

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Call it confusion over medical jargon. Call it sensationalizing. Call it miscommunication. Whatever it is, it's an illustration of how much the term "cancer" confuses everyone.

"I see a lot of people with 'brain cancer' who actually have ... lung cancer, or breast cancer or some other cancer (that spread) to the brain," said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society. "We treat the cancer according to its origin." In other words, doctors treat prostate cancer that has spread to a patient's bones differently than they would treat bone cancer.

Harper rose to fame playing Rhoda Morgenstern on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and its spinoff "Rhoda." In 2009, she was diagnosed with a non-small cell lung cancer. Doctors removed the tumor and told Harper the cancer had not spread to other parts of her body.

Then in January, Harper spent a week in the hospital after falling ill during a play rehearsal. "The side of my face started to feel kind of numb. I was slurring my speech," Harper told The New Yorker. Doctors ruled out a stroke and continued to do more tests.

Shortly after, Harper was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, also called cerebral carcinomatosis. The cancer cells from her lungs had spread to the meninges, which is three layers of tissue that protect the central nervous system. Think of it like a bag that contains the brain, spinal cord and spinal fluid.

This metastasis happens in about 3% to 5% of non-small cell lung cancer patients, Brawley said.

"It is like little grains of rice sprinkled on the surface of the meninges when seen (during an) autopsy," he said. "It is diagnosed in life with a spinal tap, and you find cancer cells in the spinal fluid."

It's rare that someone does well with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, Brawley said, which may explain why Harper's doctor said her current health "defies the odds." But most outlets didn't publish the doctor's following quote from the "Today" piece: "The problem is that at any time this can change."

The treatment that Harper has undergone -- most likely chemotherapy administered through a spinal port, Brawley said -- reportedly is working to slow the disease. But these cancer cells are adaptable and will develop resistance to the treatment. So short of a miracle, complete remission isn't in Harper's future.

As the actress said, "It's not a matter of if, but when."

Valerie Harper hopes you dance, too