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Community's Ken Jeong: 'I'm Thankful Every Day'

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Actors get weepy at the Oscars all the time, but the MTV Movie Awards is not a place where one expects to witness an emotional catharsis, especially from someone like Ken Jeong. But there he was, the rubber-faced comedian, choking back genuine tears as he accepted the Best WTF Moment award in June for leaping out of a car trunk naked in last year’s hit comedy The Hangover. They weren’t tears of joy over his award. “When I did this, my wife, Tran, was going through breast cancer treatment,” said Jeong in front of a moved, albeit confused, audience. “She taught me not to be afraid to take chances.” Explains Jeong now: “That was our moment of moving forward.”

That night Jeong, 41, and his wife of six years, general practitioner Tran Ho, 38, were effectively closing the book on a harrowing two-year journey that began when Ho found a hard lump in her breast while nursing their then 5-month-old twins Alexa and Zooey. “I figured it was just a plugged duct,” says Ho, who alongside her husband will take part in Stand Up to Cancer, a fund-raising special airing live Sept. 10 on ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and several cable channels. “As a doctor I know the stats: I’m Asian, young and just had a baby; the odds of breast cancer were low. But this lump never fully went away.” After an initial misdiagnosis, they got crushing news: Ho had highly aggressive breast cancer. “That was devastating,” she says. “I didn’t see it coming.”

Fortunately she had the perfect person to lean on: her husband. Long before he was cracking people up as the combative Spanish teacher Senor Chang on NBC’s Community, Jeong was a licensed medical internist, playing comedy clubs on the side. (The couple met in 2002, when they were both working for Kaiser Permanente in Woodland Hills, Calif., and married two years later.) “More than ever in my life, I had to lean on my medical background and persona,” says Jeong, who caught his big break when director Judd Apatow, looking for verisimilitude, cast Jeong as an obstetrician in 2007’s Knocked Up. “I had always been very efficient for my patients and knew how to expedite things, but I never thought that I’d have to use those skills in my personal life.”

Jeong helped usher his wife through a grueling regimen: 16 chemotherapy sessions and a mastectomy, followed by radiation. When he was offered his Hangover role just a few weeks into the treatment, Jeong’s instinct was to turn it down so he could be with Ho, but she wouldn’t hear of it. “I said, ‘Ken, you have to pursue your dream.'” Shooting the movie “was really cathartic,” says Jeong, who called his wife from Hangover‘s Las Vegas set in between takes. “I got to channel all my stress and rage into that character.”

It helped that Ho responded so positively to treatment, with her tumor markers going down immediately following her first round of chemo. By the time doctors completed her mastectomy in October, they found no evidence of breast cancer in her tissue. “It has been two years now, and I am still cancer-free,” says Ho. “This type of cancer, my oncologist told me, if it comes back, it usually does in the first two years.”

The relieved couple is moving forward, focusing on raising Alexa and Zooey, now 3, adjusting to the new home outside of L.A. that they moved into in July and sharing their story with others. “I’m thankful every day that Tran is cancer-free, ” says Jeong, tears once again collecting in his eyes. “I’m a comedian who is a real doctor, who is also a spouse to a cancer survivor. Maybe this is really what I was put here to do: to use all three of those things to help and inform people.”