Before Gregg Leakes was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, the Real Housewives of Atlanta star, 63, had avoided going to the doctor for years despite his wife NeNe Leakes’ repeated attempts to get him there.
In a candid interview with PEOPLE, NeNe, 50, opens up about Gregg’s health crisis, saying that she threatened him with divorce at one point in an effort to get through to him.
None of it worked. “He would be like, ‘I just don’t like the doctors,’ ” she recalls. “I wanted him to go to the doctor, not cause I thought he was sick but ’cause I thought it was so weird to be married to a person who did not want to go to the doctor. But he was just so nervous about the doctor. I wish he would have listened to me.”
NeNe added that Gregg “knew something was wrong with his stomach years ago,” but still refused to seek treatment. Instead, he self-medicated.
“From the moment I’ve been with Gregg, he’s always bene an alka seltzer man. Gregg would probably have an alka seltzer a day, he swears they cure everything,” she says. “About 10 years ago, my uncle passed away from pancreatic cancer, and I said, ‘I’m going to go have a colonoscopy.’ And I wanted him to have one done too. You know he went with me and sat in the waiting room but wouldn’t sit on that damn table and have it done himself? He was just so stubborn! Had he gotten it checked 10 years ago, I think they maybe would have saw something. But he never wanted to hear the word cancer. He was very fearful.”
Gregg was diagnosed with colon cancer in May, and went public with his health battle a month later.
So far, he’s been through three surgeries, NeNe says, including one that removed most of his colon. “It was so infected,” NeNe explains. “They did leave a little piece but they cut a major chunk out, and connected a good piece from here and a good piece from there.”
His journey will be explored this season on RHOA. And though NeNe says Gregg is “on the road to recovery” now and has lost “about 87 lbs.,” she says there are still lingering struggles.
“The last few months have been really tough,” NeNe, who shares sons Bryson and Brentt with Gregg, confesses. “It’s been a big transition for Gregg and I and our entire family. To learn that Gregg has cancer? Our lives just changed that day. Our whole routine changed. Just… everything changed. I don’t have cancer, Gregg has cancer. But I feel like our whole house has cancer.”
“It’s very, very hard to be a caretaker,” she admits. “People call and they say, ‘How’s Gregg doing?’ and I want to throw the phone and say, ‘How the f— am I doing? I’m going crazy over here, Gregg is wearing me out!’ I am not good at this s—! I would rather hire somebody. Gregg doesn’t wants me to hire somebody, but I’m just not good. I’m not good at fluffing the pillow; I’m good at buying the pillow.”
Mostly, she says his illness has caused a bit of a divide in their marriage. “He’s changed as a person, his attitude changed,” NeNe says. “I feel like that day, I lost my husband. Our whole dynamic changed. Sometimes I forget that he’s sick and I need to remind myself because he’s so on the edge. He’s not nice, but he can’t help it.”
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The time for NeNe has been reminiscent of when they separated back in 2010 and divorced the following year, ending a then 14-year marriage (they would remarry in June 2013). “Back then, I would go upstairs at night and he would go to downstairs to the basement,” she remembered. “Now, he goes to the guest room on the main floor — we don’t sleep in the same bed. We’ll try to lay in bed together for a couple of hours but he freaks out if we sleep in the same bed. He’s like, ‘I don’t want to give you anything!’ “
“It’s been very tough and very lonely,” she continues. “You know how many nights I’ve been up there crying? I’ve really cried in my room because I was so used to him being there. We’ve been together over 21 years. And when we first got married, we were so in love that we got a queen-sized bed and said we never wanted to sleep in anything bigger because we always wanted to be close to one another. … And now he’s on an entirely differently floor.”
No matter what, NeNe says that she’ll always stick by Gregg, quoting her “through sickness and health” vows.
“I love Gregg,” she says. “He’s getting better. Me, I’m not there yet. We’re still not together that much, he can’t travel with me. I’m just hoping for the best. You know, over the years you hear people say, ‘So and so had cancer,’ and you feel bad for them but you just don’t know how it feels until it happens to you. It just doesn’t touch you. It has to happen.”
The Real Housewives of Atlanta airs Sundays (8 p.m. ET) on Bravo.
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