It was easy for Jeannie Gaffigan to ignore the signs of a brain tumor.
As a busy, working mom of five children with comedian and husband Jim Gaffigan, 53, Jeannie would often have headaches and dizzy spells, surely just symptoms of their busy life and workload, she thought.
“In retrospect, of course, I knew something wasn’t right,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “It was there.”
Her kids’ pediatrician was actually the one to suggest she go to an ENT specialist in March 2017 after Jeannie, 49, mentioned she couldn’t hear well out of her left ear. A few weeks later, an MRI revealed she had a 6-cm mass the size of a pear on her brain stem.
“It became real when I heard ‘tumor’ and saw the picture,” she recalls. Later she asked her neurosurgeon, “I just have one question, ‘Am I going to die?’ “
Now, the comedy writer is sharing her journey — through surgery and her recovery — in a new book, When Life Gives you Pears. The experience indelibly shaped Jeannie as a parent and a wife, as Jim had to shift into caregiver mode for the entire family.
“He had to do all of it without knowing what it was,” she says. “He was learning the schedule, and he was the boss. He was becoming me.”
- For more from Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
After her surgeon removed all of the tumor, the nerve damage left her unable to swallow anything, including water, and she developed pneumonia in the hospital. She was finally able to go home after three weeks with the help of a tracheostomy and feeding tube, which was removed after four months.
More than two years post-surgery, Jeannie is back working and taking care of her family, but more mindful as well.
“I think it’s easy to see how I explained it all away,” she says of the tumor’s symptoms. “It has to inform my life now, and it has to be something that I can communicate to people who are busy. About taking the time to at least check in with yourself and say, ‘Something’s not right.’ ”
Today she insists she is grateful for her brain tumor. “If it had not been for this thing that almost killed me, I would not be able to appreciate every breath I take and every drop of water I swallow. Or the incredible support system I have with my community, friends and family,” she adds. “I would not have known that being away from my kids would be so heartbreaking. Now my heart explodes when I’m with them. And I’m grateful that I understand why God gave me the most generous, loving, fantastic and funniest husband in the world.”
When Life Gives You Pears hits bookshelves on Oct. 1.