By Jessica Herndon
October 12, 2009 12:00 PM

Looking at her now, you’d never know that Tionne Watkins, better known as T-Boz of the ’90s girl group TLC, has secretly battled a brain tumor for nearly three years. She hid her struggle (which took away her ability to speak for months) on The Celebrity Apprentice in March. “I didn’t want pity—I was there to help sick children,” says Watkins, who also has sickle-cell disease, an often-fatal blood disorder marked by chronic fatigue and organ failure. “I was told I wouldn’t live past 30 or have children.” Watkins, who lives with daughter Chase, 8, in Atlanta, shares her story for the first time with PEOPLE’s Jessica Herndon.

Because of my sickle-cell disease, I have a high tolerance for pain. By 2006, I’d had headaches for six years. I thought it was stress. But when my vision went blurry, I got an MRI.

Turns out, she had a grapefruit-size acoustic neuroma (which are noncancerous) on her vestibular nerve, which affected her balance, hearing, sight and facial movement.

I thought, “God, why now?” I told the doctor my goal was not to die—I had to be there for Chase.

Watkins consulted many doctors who refused to remove the tumor, citing sickle-cell-related complications, like lung or heart failure. The alternatives (like burning her brain stem) were grim. Keith L. Black, M.D., and Rick A. Friedman, M.D., of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, thought surgery was possible if they worked with a blood specialist.

Dr. Black asked me in what order did I want to save these three things: my hearing, balance and facial movement. I said save my facial control first and hearing second, because you wouldn’t be able to tell if I can’t hear well just from looking at me. At least I’d have hearing on one side. Then save my balance last. But I worried about it. What if I couldn’t sing or dance? Music is my heart.

During the Nov. 7, 2006, surgery, Dr. Black cut behind her ear and peeled the tumor from the brain stem.

The surgery took about seven hours. (I had written my will—I might not have made it.) When I awoke, I could hear and looked normal. But then I had a sickle-cell crisis. With the pain meds and steroids, they said I kept flopping and hitting my head. They gave me IV fluids in order to stop it.

After I was released, more than a week later, the ride to my L.A. apartment was like vertigo to the 10th power. I had to sit up in bed for two months. They propped me up, but I kept sliding down, which made my head swell. It was so painful. At one point, fluid poured out my nose. I was readmitted. I couldn’t walk or really see. I heard screeching noises. They said, “We may have to cut you open again.” I was like, “No!” I prayed, and the fluid stopped, so I got out.

When I was eating pancakes four days later, they fell out of my mouth. I couldn’t feel my cheek. I couldn’t blink, walk or form words. When I saw my face was distorted, I cried. Two weeks later Chase, who stayed with my aunt in Atlanta, and I were on iChat and she was like, “Mom, you look pretty.” I don’t know what she saw, but it made me feel better.

In rehab, I had to relearn how to walk and how to say my ABCs. I can relate to deaf people: You think you’re saying “where” but your mouth goes “whaa.” When Chase visited me, she’d hold my cheeks and kiss me. She didn’t treat me like I looked funny.

Though self-conscious about her face, Watkins’s speech improved within a year, and she performed with TLC at the June 2008 BET Awards.

I knew I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t talk straight or keep my balance, and my lungs were weak. Fans asked if I had a stroke. It was not a good night.

Now, with dance therapy, Watkins hasn’t fully regained her balance, but she feels ready to perform. TLC will play at Justin Timberlake‘s charity concert in Las Vegas Oct. 17.

If you say “sick kids,” you always get me. People like Justin have shown me love. He’s excited. So am I.

To this day, the headaches are unbelievable. My facial nerves jump, and I want my smile back. But if that’s all? No problemo. I fight to be here daily because I want to see Chase get married and have kids. I want to party and laugh. I’m doing a solo album, and I want to tour. I have to see if I can do it. I’m still here. It will take way more to stop me.