updated 03/06/2013 AT 12:45 PM ET
•originally published 03/06/2013 AT 7:45 AM ET
After successfully battling lung cancer in 2009, Valerie Harper thought she had the disease beat.
On Jan. 15 she received a diagnosis of leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled membrane – known as the meninges – surrounding the brain.
The incurable disease, which accounts for less than 2% of all cancers, “comes on quickly and progresses quickly,” says Harper’s oncologist, Dr. Ronald Natale, director of the Lung Cancer Research Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. It can prove fatal in as few as three months.
“This is a really complicated condition,” says Dr. Jeremy Rudnick, Harper’s neuro-oncologist. “The spinal fluid is a collection of fluid that’s being circulated [through the brain] kind of like a sink. The fluid itself is growing cancer cells so they are multiplying in there. Those cells start to coat the brain.”
Because of the difficulty of getting chemotherapy drugs into the meninges, there are “limitations” in treating the condition, says Dr. Rudnick.