Well-Being//

Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan: “How We Navigated the Stress of a Brain Tumor Diagnosis Through Comedy”

Thrive Global spoke to comedian Jim Gaffigan and his wife and writing partner, Jeannie, about how they navigated a recent medical crisis, and why they’ve become part of #HowWeCare advocating for caregivers.

Courtesy of Tylenol/#HowWeCare

As Told To Katherine Cusumano.

Our pediatrician was the first person to encourage Jeannie to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist. We were trying, through process of elimination, to figure out why she had lost hearing in one of her ears, and, eventually, what we thought was a routine MRI unearthed a massive tumor pressing against her brain stem. The otorhinolaryngologist broke up with us—“I can’t see you anymore,” he said; “It’s out of my jurisdiction”—and we had to make a plan.

Then, there was just one thought: Oh, alright, this is where my life changes forever.

As we navigated those early days after her diagnosis, we quickly learned you have to be an advocate for your own well-being, ask for help, and ask a lot of questions. Jeannie went into this medical appointment with our five children and mentioned her hearing loss. Our pediatrician was an active participant in this and told us, no, that’s not normal, I’m going to refer you to an ENT. Jeannie, this crazy-busy mother-of-five who’s also writing comedy and executive-producing a television show, made time to see a specialist. That ENT was proactive enough to suggest an MRI; our neurologist friend helped us figure out what to do next. It’s all about making the next-best decision in that moment.

You can easily compartmentalize your symptoms as exhaustion, getting older, whatever, and never find out there’s something really wrong with you—even though things like this are often only found in autopsies. But we never really let the fear of mortality set in. We were just like, “Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not dying. This is not it.” Jeannie’s very spiritual, and she turned to God: “Listen, I’m not ready. Too much to do.” In those first few days, it was all fight. We thought, What are we going to do to live?

So the first thing we did was decide Jeannie was not going to die; the second was that we told our kids she was not going to die. We explained everything to our two older children, Jack and Marre, ages 12 and 14, and we told our three younger children, Patrick, Michael, and Katie, ages five, seven, and nine, a more abridged version, that Jeannie was sick, she was going to the hospital and they would fix something that was wrong with her. After that, the next hardest part was calling Jeannie’s parents. And the first thing she said to them, too, was, “I’m not going to die.” There was a practicality to our approach; we knew that hysteria, or feeling sorry for ourselves, was not going to be constructive in that moment, especially when confronting the potential negative consequences of her surgery. We knew we had to be clear-minded.

After we found a neurosurgeon and began learning more about what we had to do to get rid of this tumor quickly—as well as the bad things that could happen, like what would be compromised—we started to be funny right away. Comedy helped us organize and find some power in these powerless situations. At one doctor’s appointment, Jeannie said, “I don’t care if I end up just being a head in a jar for my kids, I want to be there for them.” That moment of laughter is worth a lot. We have been writing together for so long, the comedy emerged naturally out of this process. It was already the filter through which we process life, so finding the humor in the situation made this potentially really tragic, horrible thing, not so bad.

Comedy was a boon for us well beyond the surgery. Jeannie is the eldest of nine children, Jim the youngest of six—so Jeannie was often positioned as the maternal figure, Jim as the baby. But after the surgery, Jeannie fell ill, and Jim was thrust into the role of caregiver—something that’s really central to our new Tylenol campaign, #HowWeCare, which supports the 44 million caregivers around the country. It was an inversion of our usual dynamic, and he really came through like a champion. When it comes down to it, you have a fight or flight reaction, and Jim did not flee. He canceled his shows and became the caregiver. And, while he may not have known where the laundry detergent was, he made up for it by being the funniest person we know. He created different characters who could do different household tasks; after Jeannie’s tracheotomy, we created a faux cooking show where guest stars—our friends—would take turns hooking food formula up to the tube. Jim did tricks while shaking up the food formula like he was Tom Cruise in Cocktail. It kind of gave new meaning to the marriage vow in sickness and in health. It’s an incredible bonding experience when someone who you love has to take care of you.

There’s a saying in comedy: The straighter the set-up, the better the punch. When you’re dealing with a medical crisis, it’s all straight. Comedy is empowering; finding the humor, or the humanity, in a situation also provides some relief from the stress. When Jim went back out to do shows, it wasn’t clear how people would respond to the new material about Jeannie’s surgery. But the way people responded was exceptional. Even if it isn’t a brain tumor, everyone has had a medical crisis in their family. They’ve spent that time in the hospital not knowing whether their life is going to be changed forever and looking at every face walking down the hallway, wondering what they’re going to tell you. All of this really opened our eyes to what other people are going through, how many people are committing their lives to taking care of people whose lives are in jeopardy, and what a selfless commitment it is to take care of someone else—and how necessary it is to acknowledge the caregivers in the world.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.