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How comedians Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan used humor to cope with a brain tumor

When Jeannie was diagnosed with a brain tumor, the couple fell back on comedy to process what they were going through.

Jim and Jeanne (“Jeannie”) Gaffigan have been writing comedy together for years. But the comedic duo had a very unique source of inspiration when writing Jim’s latest standup special, "Noble Ape": a tumor the size of a pear blocking Jeannie’s brain-stem.

Their world was rocked to the core when Jeannie was unexpectedly diagnosed with the tumor — and ultimately had it surgically removed in April of last year. So they coped the only way they knew how: finding the humor in the situation. Now that they are out the other side of the difficult ordeal (after a lengthy recovery, Jeannie is now in good health), they’ve partnered with TYLENOL® on a new campaign called #HowWeCare that supports caregivers who dedicate themselves to their loved ones’ well-being every day.

“I think that it's important for people to acknowledge the caregivers in the world because they are the ones that we need when it comes down to basic human survival,” Jim told NBC News BETTER. “And it's hard to say thank you. So this is a way to take care of the caregivers in our life.”

We caught up with the couple and talked Jim’s own experience being a caregiver (to the wife who is usually taking care of him), why an MRI machine is funny and how comedy (even about serious illness) is really about a shared humanity.

On being diagnosed with a brain tumor

Jeannie: The day I found out about my diagnosis was a routine MRI that I had put off for several months after I noticed, in early 2017, that my hearing in my left ear had just completely stopped. I noticed it and kinda blew it off because I'm so busy. We have five kids and a busy career. Actually, my pediatrician noticed that I couldn't hear out of my ear, and sent me to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor. Several ENT visits later, they couldn't find anything wrong, so they sent me for a routine MRI. When I came out of that, they [said], "You need to meet with a neurosurgeon because you have a gigantic mass in your brain."

They [said], ‘You need to meet with a neurosurgeon because you have a gigantic mass in your brain.’

Jim: We were in our office and [Jeannie] got a phone call. And then [she] went into the other room. Instinctively, you know something's wrong.

Jeannie: I didn't really know what that meant, that they found something in my brain. It was a large mass. That's all they said. The doctor was like, "I'm not a neurosurgeon, so here's some phone numbers. Tell them I referred you from this MRI. Go to the radiology center. Get your scan. And bring it to the appointment." And then I was kind of just out there in limbo. Not knowing what to do. And so Jim and I had to sort of figure it out, navigate this.

Jim: Make a plan. That's what you have to do. You have to make the best next decision you can make. And so that's what we did.

On realizing the power of a caregiver

Jim: Essentially, she's wonder woman. She did everything. And as a result of her selfishly having a brain tumor, I had to adopt a caregiving role. Everyone has someone in their life who is a caregiver. And I think that especially right now, with everything that's going on in the news and how divided people feel, if you look at each of these tragic situations that make you feel bad about humanity, just look at the helpers in the situation. Look at the people who are taking care of victims. And understand that these people are what is good about humans. And what we should do is thank these people. Having personally had the role of a caregiver, I think it's important to realize that.

On why removing a brain tumor is funny

Jim: Prior to the brain surgery to remove the tumor, Jeannie had to go through this two-hour MRI where they essentially built a map of her brain so that they could kind of practice, almost like a video game. When she came out I greeted her. Her first thought was, "Write down these ideas on MRIs, on just the humor surrounding it." It didn't end up in the special. But I remember thinking, "Most people would be like, 'Oh, it was horrible. I had to be quiet in there.'" And she [said], "Being the mother of five children, that was the most peace I've had in a long time."

You could either sit in a MRI for two hours, freaking out … or you could just be like "Why is this so hilarious right now?" And it helps get through the trauma.

Jeannie: There were just so many things ... like, observational humor. It just becomes a second nature to instinctually process information through that lens. And so you could either sit in a MRI for two hours, freaking out about, "What's wrong with me? What's gonna happen? Why are these noises so loud? Why can't I breathe or move?" Or you could just be like "Why is this so hilarious right now?" And it helps get through the trauma.

Jim: I spent a couple weeks going to the ICU. You would tell people, "The ICU," and they would get all nervous. And I remember thinking, if you're gonna be in the hospital, you'd rather be in the intensive care unit rather than, like, the alternative, which I would assume would be the mediocre care unit? So there was some humor out of that, too. But you're thrust into this world — the hospital world — so as a comedian, as a writing team, we just kind of took some of this in. Some of it ends up in "Noble Ape." Some of it doesn't. One of my favorite stories is Jeannie couldn't eat. And by the way, she's married to, like, the biggest glutton in the world...

Jeannie: I'm really not even that big of an eater. But when you can't eat for days, weeks, months and you're just getting nutrition through a tube, it's brutal. I was in the hospital. I was coming back to, out of anesthesia. I opened my eyes and I saw his name tag said "Dr. Hamburger." And I literally thought that I was hallucinating. I was like, "Your name isn't Dr. Hamburger, is it?" And he's like, "Unfortunately, yes." I was like, "What are the odds that your name is Dr. Hamburger and I want to eat a hamburger right now more than anything in the whole world?"

Jim: Where's Nurse Mustard?

On humor as a coping mechanism

Jim: The fact that Jeannie and I have written comedy together for a while, some of it was a natural go-to for us to process going through Jeannie's brain tumor; just to go to comedy. We didn't have an expectation that it would resonate so much. When I started touring with some of the brain tumor material, I was surprised; obviously not everyone's had a loved one that's had a brain tumor. But it was the shared experience of going through this medical crisis; taking on a role as a caretaker. The stress, we all deal with it. We all have loved ones that deal with medical crises. And the shared experience of going through the hospital experience provided great comedy. But I think it was also kind of cathartic for the audience, for someone to make light of it.

It's a fight or flight reaction, and we're gonna choose to fight. And we choose to fight with humor.

Jeannie: What we experienced was, we can't just look at this glass half empty. It's something that we have to deal with. We can't just run and hide. It's a fight-or-flight reaction, and we're gonna choose to fight. And we choose to fight with humor. Because it's a coping mechanism. And I really feel that people have responded so positively because when you're in a situation like this, you need to be able to feel the joy of being able to look at someone you love and just laugh with them about the situation that you're in.

Jim: I think also the humor of a situation is derived from a shared acknowledgement. I mean being a human being is pretty insane. And going through a medical emergency, some of the humor is just the shared acknowledgement of the awkward situation, or the observation of it. And so going through such a heavy time period, you have to laugh. And I guess on the surface, you could see something as inappropriate. But it's the shared humanity that I think people get a kick out of.

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