February 20, 2012 12:00 PM

Watching comedian Ray Romano interact with his wife of 24 years, Anna, one could be forgiven for experiencing a bit of deja vu. After all, their rapport helped to form the backbone of his sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. And during a photo shoot at their L.A.-area home last month, the two fire off self-deprecating barbs that are perfect for prime time: “This is so not us,” says Anna as the photographer has her sit in Ray’s lap. “Too much looking at each other!”

But things haven’t always been so breezy: Two years ago Ray, 54, and Anna, 48, were devastated when she was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Anna. Though the cancer was caught early, Anna’s treatment included surgery, radiation and grueling chemotherapy. With the love and support of their four kids-Ally, 21, twins Matt and Greg, 19, and Joe, 14-and a lot of humor, the couple emerged stronger than ever from their “nightmare.” Now speaking for the first time about their battle, Ray tells PEOPLE’s Lesley Messer, “Our goal is to help people.”

Anna, you were diagnosed in February 2010 but didn’t discuss it publicly.

Anna: It was never a secret because our friends and family knew.

Ray: But we were dealing with it privately and didn’t need any attention.

How did you discover you were sick?

Anna: In October 2009 during my checkup, my doctor was talking, and I realized, “God, how much longer are you going to be on my right breast?!” He’s like, “There’s something there, but I don’t think it’s anything.” It got bigger, so I went for a mammogram and a biopsy. The doctor said, “It’s invasive breast cancer.”

What was your first thought?

Anna: I must’ve cried. All I was thinking was, “Oh my God, who’s going to take care of my kids?” Your head goes everywhere. I’m a clean freak, so I’m like, “My house is going to be a mess!” Then I’m like, “I’ll have to make a list of who Ray can and can’t date!” You can’t help but go to those places.

Ray, how did you deal with it?

Ray: I went to my office and called [my manager]. When I had to say, “Anna has breast cancer” for the first time, it was emotional. I broke down.

How did you tell your kids?

Ray: We didn’t tell them until we knew the prognosis was good.

Anna: We waited to get the results from genetic testing, and it was negative. We wanted them to have all the information and not to worry if there wasn’t a reason. So we told them, and my youngest goes, “If you’re going to be all right, can I forget about it?”

Ray: That’s the kid in him: “Do I have to worry?” I go, “No, you don’t.”

What was treatment like?

Anna: That month was going through tests to make sure it hasn’t spread. I had an MRI, and they found a separate cancer in my other breast. I had to decide, do I have a mastectomy or lumpectomies.

Ray: We got a lot of opinions.

Anna: But [the doctors said] just doing lumpectomies would be okay. Meanwhile, his dad was ill …

Ray: She went to be prepped for surgery [in March], and I got the call that he passed. There was symbolism to it: He left to make sure you were okay.

You’re pretty stoic, Ray. Did you ever cry in front of Anna?

Ray: One time on the bed, it all hit me.

Anna: It was like, “You’re human!”

Then came chemo and radiation.

Anna: The first time I went to chemo, they gave me a gift and cards.

Ray: Who did?

Anna: You and the kids! Remember? They gave me a Tiffany bracelet. The second time, I got another gift: a diamond necklace. The third time was earrings, and the fourth was my favorite: a diamond band with my kids’ initials.

Ray: She still wouldn’t sleep with me.

What happened post-chemo?

Anna: I finished my radiation by the end of September and started [the drug] tamoxifen Oct. 1, 2010.

Ray: She’s still doing that.

Has life gone back to normal?

Ray: Is this a sex question?

Anna: [smiling] Yes. I always said, “When my hair grows back, I’m not going to complain about it again!” But now? Complaining! Even though I’m healthy, it’s in the back of my mind.

Ray: But you appreciate everything so much more. It’s a cliche that life is short, but it is. We’re lucky.

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