The Comedian and the Brain Tumor
Date Published: August 28, 2019
Five kids. Four Grammy nominations. One pear-shaped brain tumor. When a life-threatening diagnosis turns comedy writer, producer and director Jeannie Gaffigan’s life upside-down, she and her husband, comedian Jim Gaffigan, turn to faith, family, and of course—humor.
Ms. Gaffigan was successfully treated for a large and rare brain tumor by Joshua Bederson, MD, Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the Mount Sinai Health System. In the operating room, Dr. Bederson used virtual reality technology that he pioneered to help surgeons operate more safely and precisely.
Ms. Gaffigan talks about her terrifying health crisis and how it’s served as a source of renewed purpose for both her and her family. Her new memoir, “When Life Gives You Pears,” will be published on October 1st.
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Last episode, I said we'd be doing another piece on immigration and we are, but it's not quite ready yet, so we're gonna switch things up. Today on the show, I'm speaking with a woman who has been through the ringer and emerged even stronger. I'm talking about comedy writer, director and producer Jeannie Gaffigan. Jeannie and her husband, comedian Jim Gaffigan, were the brains behind The Jim Gaffigan Show, and their work on Jim's comedy specials has earned them four Grammy nominations. And in addition to their busy professional life, they're the parents of five kids. In 2017, Jeannie's life was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with a pear-sized brain tumor. In her new memoir, "When Life Gives You Pears," she writes about her journey from sickness to health and the role that humor, faith and family played in her recovery. Jeannie recently had surgery on her vocal chords, so her voice is a little scratchy. Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 00:56
Thank you for having me.
So I think even by the standards of New York, you are an extraordinarily busy person. And I know you mention the book that you are the oldest of nine kids.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 01:06
Is that, would you say, where this comes from? This kind of caretaking, frenetic, stay busy, 'if you don't have a project, make a project’?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 01:16
I mean, I think that probably—that environment probably did have something to do with it. Because my mom was pregnant my whole life, pretty much my whole childhood life. She was in a state of needing help. So I think that I was kind of raised into that model. But I've gotten myself in a position where, yes, I have five kids. Yes, we're very blessed to have this really intense, productive career. And Jim brings a lot of work in, and it just keeps appearing and piling up. And obviously with our career, you have to strike while the iron's hot, because you never know when people are gonna be like, 'Yeah, they're not funny anymore.'
Jeannie Gaffigan: 02:02
It's over. So we have to just keep working on that. And then I have this really strange medical condition that's not related to any of my brain tumor or anything else, and it's this inability for my mouth just to say the word, "no." Like when people ask me to do things. So I'll run into someone at school and they'll say, 'The lost and found here is just such a huge problem. There's no one running it.' And I'm like, 'Okay, let me look into that.' And then 25 phone calls later I realize, 'Oh wait, I'm now in charge of fixing will lost-and-found system!' So it's this constant process I have of trying to set boundaries with myself. And then suddenly I got this amazing brain tumor that just put me out—
Jeannie Gaffigan: 02:56
Let's talk about Tumorgate.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 02:58
It starts with the hearing loss, right?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 03:01
That's right. Now, that's what really prompted the MRI. But in retrospect, after speaking to Dr. Bederson about symptoms and things like that, Tumorgate started a long time ago. And it may have been insidiously growing for like 10 years. Because I just compartmentalized all my symptoms because I was so busy. So I just made them all their own separate things. So separately they seemed like little, mild annoyances.
So there was the hearing, there was balance too, right?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 03:35
It was hearing, it was balance, it was headaches. It was all the things when viewed together were like—
Brain tumor, brain tumor, brain tumor.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 03:42
—you idiot, Jeannie. Right. But there was no reason for me to connect them until I was diagnosed. And then it was like, 'Do you have this? Do you have that? Yes, yes, yes.'
Right and then you end up at Mount Sinai with Dr. Bederson. You end up with the top guy.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 03:59
I ended up with the top guy. Unbelievably, unbelievably! Like and it wasn't—I just remember at a certain point, I think, in my recovery, I was posting on Instagram, and I think somebody made a comment like, 'Well, it's easy for celebrities to get medical care when other people can't,' or made a comment like, I must have been like, 'Do you know who I am?!' Honestly, no one even knew my name. It was literally like the Red Sea was in the way, and it parted, I walked right into Dr. Bederson's office. So I really feel there was definitely miracle stuff happening. And I'm not ashamed to say it in the book. I'm not afraid of, like, people are gonna be like, 'Oh wait, you lost me at faith. Sorry. Yeah, don't—not interested. I'm an atheist.'
Yeah. Tell us about your faith and then the role that your faith played in this journey?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 5:00
Okay. Well I've never really been a Bible-thumper in terms of proselytizing or being like, 'It's my way or the highway.' Because I really feel like what I believe is more like 'You worry about how your own life is going.' So my lens is that I grew up Catholic. And even though I wasn't always the best Catholic, I still, like God and the Virgin Mary and these people were characters in my life. Like they were real to me. They *are* real. And so I think that when I was faced with this situation–like I was faced with a lot of other really crappy situations in my life–instead of being like, 'Why God, why? If you were real, you wouldn't have done this to me!' I was just like, 'Oh, I get it. I can't handle this, and I need a higher power to help me get through this.' And so what my faith is is kind of this belief that this isn't it. There's something beyond this. And many times in our life we're going to have to, like can't hide from pain, can't hide from tragedy.
People can go for 20, 30, 40, 50 years without having any tragedy, I'm sure, but when it comes, and it will come, there's a few things that I would suggest. One is—figure out what your spirituality is. What can you hang onto that makes it not so dark? Because when I didn't have that, it was really dark. When I let go of believing in something bigger out of this, it got really dark for me. I went to a really dark place and I was just miserable. And I was like, 'I will never ever get out of this hospital. And I'll never get – I'll never be able to do *this* again and I'll never be able to see my kids again.' I would go to that place, which was really hard. But then I would remember, 'Oh wait, there's something more. There's some reason this is happening. There's a bigger picture here.' And I would say, 'Okay, let me look around at my surroundings. What am I supposed to be learning here? Even if I never get out of this room.'
What did you conclude? What did you come to?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 07:24
It's to look at these small moments that we just blow off in our lives, and just, every day, even if you have to tie a string around your finger, every day be like, okay, I'm going to just, you know—right now I'm looking at your ice coffee here, right—when I take a sip of this ice coffee and swallow it, I'm going to think to myself, 'How glorious is that feeling of swallowing! That water going down your throat.' Because when I was in a situation where I could not swallow a drop—
Yeah. So I wanna set the scene a little bit. So you had this, you had the surgery and when you're talking about the dark moments and faith, you're in a hospital bed for—
Jeannie Gaffigan: 08:09
For two weeks.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 08:10
Yeah. It seemed like several months.
Right but there's a period of time where you can't—
Jeannie Gaffigan: 08:15
Eat or drink. Yeah. But I was moved home at some point, but I was still in a bed with—
Right, but I just want to paint a picture so that people understand when they're listening, like—
Jeannie Gaffigan: 08:24
Sorry about that. I forgot.
Yeah, where you're at when you're having these thoughts about appreciating a cup of coffee.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 08:31
So the surgery, right. It like an emergency brain surgery, which is so funny to me. I mean it's funny.
How long was the operation? It was like an eight-hour, 10-, something?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 08:40
I think the actual surgery was nine hours, but it took 12 hours, the whole thing. And my husband's really funny because he did this bit about how they were talking him through what was going to happen, and Dr. Bederson said that he's going to do this first, and then he's gonna stop for lunch, and then just gonna go back. And Jim's like, 'Why would he tell me he was stopping for lunch?! Is he afraid I'm gonna run into him in the cafeteria and be like, What are you doing here?! Aren't you supposed to be the OR with my wife?' But, yes, okay so anyway I had a very successful surgery and then because of where the tumor was on my cranial nerves, at some point in the, I think the day after the surgery, I aspirated my own saliva because I had no—my swallow function was all messed up, and I got double-lung strep pneumonia, and I was in jeopardy. And so I got intubated and there was a lot of crazy things happening, and it was a nothing-by-mouth situation, so I couldn't even swallow a drop of water. And I think that *that* more than anything else was the most difficult for me. And I think there was something about being in that state that awoke something more deeper spiritually in me. Because it was probably the worst feeling. And I'm not even a big eater or drinker. Like I'm not even the one in my family who's known for being a pig.
Famous for it.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 10:22
But I never even thought how lucky I was before to be able to do it. And there are people who live with a food tube. They never are able to swallow and to have that feeling. And there's something about making these little realizations about what you should be grateful for that awake a whole new part of your brain. And that's why I told you to drink the coffee and really feel it going down your throat.
I want to talk about humor. Because humor is such a big part of this book and your life. Of course you're a comedy writer, Jim, your brother, too, Paul publishes cartoons in the New Yorker.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 11:06
So you were surrounded by this amazing, funny community. And there are great scenes in the book. I was wondering if any of them—actually, I guess the one I wanna talk about is after you're home and you have to get PEG'd. Can you talk about what pegging is and what Jim turned it into?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 11:25
Yes. Okay. So I got a PEG tube, which was what I would call eating. It was my feeding tube. And there are these bags of mixed organic food, baby food that you can pour into this cup with some water and shake it up and take it in a syringe and put it in your PEG tube like a meal. So I was kind of like, 'Oh great.' Because also the name of the food sounds really good. It's like couscous chicken and spinach and you're like, 'Oh, delicious.' But you never get to taste it because it's just some formula. So I was kind of down in the dumps because it seemed I should be able to taste something, but I couldn't. And so Jim decided that he was going to make this kind of fun. All of a sudden I came in and he was like, "Are you ready to be PEG'd?" Which I guess is some kind of dirty term. And I was like, "I don't think so." And I went into the kitchen and he had like candles lit and he just played this character who was like very romantically PEG-ing food into like a hose that ran right into my stomach. And he made this whole talk show, like cooking show about it where he would invite guests on. Like people would come over and he's like, "Oh, it's time for Jeannie's PEG-ing. Would you to PEG my wife?" And then he would do this thing where he'd criticized the way that they were PEG-ing. It was very funny, and he made this really kind of awkward, gross, horrible thing really great and funny. And so that helped me get through it.
Right. And the bigger picture to me seemed also that as you, as your abilities to be, the caretaker were diminished, you were able to see other people grow. Right. You saw Jim grow in a new way. You saw your kids grow in new way. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 13:27
Yeah. Um, I think that a lot of people who are can relate to this. I don't want to just say it's for mothers or Type A crazy people like me. But the way that I am, I like to executive produce everything. So in the past it would be like, okay, I could fight with my child about picking up their Legos for 20 minutes, and then have them do a really half-ass job of it and put them in the wrong buckets and fix them later. Or I could just do it myself. And it got to the point where I was applying that to everything. I was like, 'Oh, don't worry. I'll do it. I'll do it, I'll do it.' And so I was kind of doing everything for my kids and to a certain point, Jim, and a certain point, my employees. And when I was not able to do anything, I saw people figuring stuff out for themselves. And I realized that I was stifling their growth by doing everything for them. And then when I wasn't, they really—parts of my husband came out where he was, he found his caregiving ability. It wasn't what mine is, but it's not going to go away now. It blossomed. So these things that blossomed through this illness are now these kinds of permanent things that have just made all of our lives better.
That's so lovely. Kind of to that point about where you are now and how you—I guess my question is you go through this experience and you learn these lessons and have these observations, and I imagine it's tough to then continue to practice them. Like it takes practice, it takes intentionality. So what does the practice look like? How do you integrate the lessons?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 15:26
Well, I mean, I think everyone has to tailor it to their own life, but for me, I need reminders. So in the last chapter of my book I have a meaningful to-do list that I think I'm going to get made into a coaster and just give it away to people. You know, it's literally like, 'Take a moment and show gratitude for something today. Randomly be kind to someone today. Tell somebody you love them today.' Make a to-do list that has nothing to do with your busyness. But you need that. Like for me, I literally need a string around my finger or a list.
Do you literally have one? Do you have something on your phone?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 16:07
Yeah, yeah on my desktop. But if you get too busy, it just becomes like white noise again. So you have to constantly reset these boundaries with yourself. You know, I literally am thinking of designing a projector for, you know how people have a projector where their alarm clock goes on their ceiling? So when they wake up in the morning they see the projected time. I need one of those with a shifting message every morning.
What would it say?
Jeannie Gaffigan: 16:33
Well, it would rotate. But it would be like: "Say 'I love you' to your husband before you say anything else." You know, "Thank God that you woke up." Simple little things. And after a while you will literally see your life transform.
Well, Jeannie, thank you so much for being on the podcast. This was a real pleasure.
Jeannie Gaffigan: 16:59
It was really fun talking to you, thank you.
Jeannie Gaffigan's memoir, "When Life Gives You Pears," hits the shelves on October 1st and is available for preorder now. Road to Resilience is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. It's produced by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson, and me, Jon Earle. Our executive producers are Dorie Klissas and Lucia Lee. If you liked what you heard, give us a rating on Apple Podcasts and share the podcast with a friend. We really appreciate it. From all of us here, thanks so much for listening. We'll see you next time.