She’s a writer, a producer, a wife, a mom…. and a brain tumor survivor.
In 2017, Jeannie Gaffigan– wife of comedian Jim Gaffigan– was told she needed emergency surgery to remove a tumor from her brain.
The Shorewood native talks about that experience and so much more with WTMJ’s Libby Collins.
Listen in the player above.
A portion of the interview was transcribed by eCourt Reporters, Inc.
LIBBY COLLINS: Your faith became very important to you as to how you helped get through it and find a sense of peace.
JEANNIE GAFFIGAN: Well, you’re asking me how my faith got me through this. I mean, I think that the ‑‑ I mean, this is — I really go into detail in my book about this, but, you know, first from the get‑go — and as I described before, I always had a — kind of this conversation going on with God, it was a result of my mother being that way. You know, my mother was like, “Oh, God is here at the table with us,” and, “God is in the house.” And, you know, she was very, very — you know, God was a real character in our lives. And I think that even though I was like, “Mom, I’m so embarrassed, don’t say that in front of people,” I think it just sunk in, you know, and it just became a reality for me. So, it wasn’t like all of the sudden I had this amazing conversion experience, but it was like the timing of the discovery and the operation was right around the Easter holiday, which is like the highest, most holy holiday in the Catholic faith, and it’s very symbolic of a death and a rebirth, a bad thing followed by a really good thing. And so the timing of it was like a message to me, it was like ‑‑ because I’m a writer, I think in symbols, and because I am a faithful person, I think in metaphysical reality. So, to me, it was kind of like God be like, “Okay, everything’s going to be okay.”
So I realized at that time that I think that maybe instinctually I knew that I was going to live, because there was so many doors that opened for me that were, for instance, that I just from like no VIP connections at all, like from an anonymous walk into a hospital happenstance, I ended up with like the top neurosurgeon at Mt. Sinai Hospital who just happened to specialize in exactly the type of surgery in tumors I had. So that was like a miracle. So, I did have confidence, but only confidence that if it didn’t go well that that was also part of the plan. And so I put it ‑‑ it was a real moment of letting go of what I wanted and what I wanted to control and what I designed for my life, and just saying, okay, this is got to be part of the plan. Because I really believed that I’m getting this kind of signal about this timing in terms of, like, the liturgical calendar and Good Friday followed by Easter Sunday. That was the timeframe that this happened in. So, I was diagnosed on, like, the Wednesday going into Holy Week. So Holy Thursday, Good Friday was me getting, you know -‑ Holy Thursday was me finding out exactly what was happening because I was having surgery. Good Friday was me getting scanned for all of the pictures they needed for — to make it a safe operation. Then Saturday and Sunday, which is Easter, I had with my family, they were sort of kind of like don’t make your will or anything, but just enjoy the time with your family and just cover your bases for the next couple weeks. Just take it a couple weeks at a time. And I was like, a couple weeks, I was like okay.
So, I, you know, took that advice and I did have these hard conversations with my parents, who I then asked to disseminate the information to my siblings. And I had these conversations with my children. And, you know, Jim was, you know, dropped everything and took care of me through this. So, it strengthened all of us.
LIBBY COLLINS: But through it all, you both kept your sense of humor.
JEANNIE GAFFIGAN: Yeah, and that was totally part of it, too, because it was ‑‑ I don’t know how at the time, you don’t really think it’s funny, but you just find ways. And that’s just the way that we — that’s the kind of lens that Jim and I have always processed stress and hardship. So, in the moment, it’s like really hard to see that. And we all get angry, and we’ll get anxious, and we’ll get upset, but then if you look at the big picture down the line, it’s going to be a really amazing bit, you know, a comedy story or episode or something. So, I think that the way that we’ve kind of conditioned ourselves to view the world is through a sense of humor. Even though it was really terrifying to go through all those MRIs, when I would come out, I would just have all these funny ideas about how crazy it is to go into this, like, coffin, this space-age coffin and have this banging in your ear, and it just struck me as really funny.
Ironically, not only did that kind of attitude by Jim get me through some of the worst parts of recovery, such as being tube fed and having a tracheotomy and not being able to walk, and Jim was just so silly about it and just made it seem like it was all part of this big adventure that we were on. That humor helped me heal. The subtitle of my book of When Life Gives You Pears, is The Healing Power of Faith, Family, and Funny People. And that’s really kind of my message, is that you got to hang on to these things because life is not easy and a sense of humor about things is a real gift. Because it’s so easy to get depressed and anxious about, like, every little thing and every big thing, because, I mean, we’re in a big thing right now, things are serious. But if you kind of take things with what later you can look back on and say what’s funny about this, what is ironic about this, what is universal about this, what can we all laugh about this. I’m sure that you’ve had that experience where a terrible thing happens, or you’re at a funeral or something and you’re with close family and something, like, outrageous happens and you all just have to like hug and laugh, and it just connects you to each other and it connects you to reality, and so it becomes part of the healing.