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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.

David Livingston / Getty Images Contributor

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