Caroline Rhea does not take motherhood for granted.
The actress, 53, opens up in the new issue of PEOPLE about learning she was expecting her first child at the age of 44 — and the heartbreaking circumstances that surrounded her pregnancy.
After years of struggling to conceive with her then-boyfriend and fellow comedian Costaki Economopoulos while serving as host on the third season of The Biggest Loser, Rhea received some devastating news.
“My parents got diagnosed with cancer one week apart,” she tells PEOPLE.
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Rhea’s mom, Margery, was diagnosed with breast cancer and her dad, David, with lung cancer. David, an OB/GYN, died 10 months later; Margery lived another six years.
“The month after my dad died is when [my daughter] Ava was conceived naturally, at a considerably older age than most people,” she says.
And the timing was not lost on the star. “She’s like my little miracle baby,” Rhea adds. “All the bad stuff, and all the good stuff, it all leads you to the place that you’re meant to be. When it’s something that results in a child being born, and you get to be a mother, it’s all worth it.”
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After Ava, now 8½, was born, the Sabrina the Teenage Witch alum dropped everything to focus on raising her daughter.
“The first five years, I didn’t go on the road at all,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m not gonna wait this long and have a baby and then leave.’ ”
And while Rhea still takes on the occasional role — she’s currently starring in A Very Sordid Wedding and frequently appears on the Alec Baldwin-led Match Game — she still prefers to nestle at home with Ava.
“I love how hilariously funny my daughter is,” Rhea says. “She’s the best company.”
For more from Caroline Rhea, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.