CNN's Kasie Hunt Reveals She Had Surgery to Remove a Benign Brain Tumor: 'Pretty Surreal'

"The hardest part was knowing that there was something in there, growing," Kasie Hunt tells PEOPLE exclusively

CNN's Kasie Hunt Reveals She Underwent Brain Tumor Removal Surgery
Photo: Kasie Hunt Rivera

Kasie Hunt is recovering from a harrowing ordeal — and yet, she's hopeful.

The CNN anchor and chief national affairs analyst recently underwent a four-hour operation to remove what turned out to be a benign brain tumor. But getting to that diagnosis has been a long journey.

"I had headaches a few years ago when I was pregnant with my son that we had checked out and that we were just making sure to monitor generally," she tells PEOPLE exclusively. "I started getting really bad ones in March of 2021 and made an appointment with a neurologist to see what might be going on."

Hunt, 36, says she has a family history of migraines, so she assumed that was the cause. "But the neurologist sent me for a routine MRI scan just as a new patient intake — and they saw something on the scan," she says. "They ordered a follow-up just to double check and the follow-up showed something that was a little bit more clear."

She underwent several more tests to see if there was perhaps something else going on in her body that might have caused the scan results. They checked for cancer but "everything came back blessedly clear," she says.

"No issues with skin or other things that might be more common in somebody that's my age. So that was all really good news," Hunt recalls. "And my symptoms weren't getting worse, so we thought, okay, this was likely migraines."

She continued to treat her migraines with medication to help her get through the workday. "I was still struggling with headaches and things like that," she says. But there wasn't much more for doctors to do until they determined whether the growth was getting bigger. So she waited.

CNN's Kasie Hunt Reveals She Underwent Brain Tumor Removal Surgery
Kasie Hunt Rivera

Hunt started to feel worse in August. Around the time she was beginning her new job at CNN, she had another scan that showed a small rate of growth.

"Once we learned that, then we really had to take some action, because that was a really scary thing to learn," she says. "Once you see growth in the brain, that means that there is a tumor growing in the brain."

Learning of her brain tumor diagnosis way "pretty surreal," Hunt says.

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Hunt, who is a veteran of NBC News and MSNBC, couldn't believe she was dealing with a health issue of this caliber as a relatively young parent of a 2-year-old.

"Suddenly, I have to figure out, what does this mean for us, for our family? It really knocked me back on my heels for a little while. The next step was, okay, what's the absolute best way to make sure that we can figure out a way to beat this and not let this be something that defines me?" she says. "Defines my family, defines my life, my job, all those things."

CNN's Kasie Hunt Reveals She Underwent Brain Tumor Removal Surgery
Kasie Hunt Rivera

"I mean, there's so much still that I want to do at work and my new role at CNN. And especially with my family, my son [Mars], my husband [Matthew Mario Rivera]. There's just so much. I'm only 36, right? There's supposed to be so much ahead," she adds.

One week ago she had surgery performed by Daniel Yoshor, M.D. and his team at Penn Medicine, which is a part of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Hunt's tumor ended up being small, which she says is "very good from a prognosis perspective." The tumor was found to be benign.

"There was no way to know unless we actually did the surgery," says Hunt. "And that, I think, was really the hardest part, was knowing that there was something in there, growing."

CNN's Kasie Hunt Reveals She Underwent Brain Tumor Removal Surgery
Kasie Hunt Rivera

Hunt says her journey to recovery has been a challenge and that she is dealing with "a lot of pain management."

"Now that I'm home, the recovery has been going slow," she says. "But it's steady — I haven't had any backsliding."

She says the toughest part is knowing she has six to wight weeks ahead of recovery. "I can't drive and I can't lift my son. I can't lift anything over 10 lbs., he's about 30 lbs. And so it breaks my heart a little bit."

"I just want to pick him up and hug him. But he's figured out that Mommy has this boo-boo," she continues. "And so now he wants to point at the scar and say, 'boo-boo,' and he's really gentle about it. And so we're doing a lot of sitting on the floor and reading books and things like that together."

CNN's Kasie Hunt Reveals She Underwent Brain Tumor Removal Surgery
Kasie Hunt Rivera

Even though her recovery hasn't been easy, Hunt says she feels "touched by grace, and so enormously surrounded and loved by a community that's lifted me up in every way, medically, physically, emotionally, spiritually." And telling her story is of the utmost importance to her, as she hopes others take precautions and get checked out if they believe something feels off.

"We live exceedingly busy, very stressful lives. It's easy to say, 'Oh, yes. My head hurts. I'm going to fight through it.' Or, 'Oh, yes. I'm stressed out today. That's probably what's causing this.' "

"But I think that for me, finding this and figuring out what was going on and making sure that I was going to be able to live the kind of healthy life that's going to give my son what he needs from me for the next however many years, was just about paying attention and making sure that I didn't let this drop," she explains. "I made sure that I was telling the people who loved me, 'Hey, something's wrong.' "

CNN's Kasie Hunt Reveals She Underwent Brain Tumor Removal Surgery
Kasie Hunt Rivera

And she can't wait to hold Mars. "The first thing I want to do when I'm recovered is wrap my son in a giant bear hug and swing him around in a big circle until we both crack up laughing," she says. "And then, I want to have a long, leisurely dinner over delicious food and wine with my husband, who's been our steadfast rock through all this."

Hunt is also looking forward to returning to work at CNN — a company that has been "so incredibly generous" to her amid her health issues, she says.

"They have said that all that matters is that I bounce back the way I need and that I can take whatever time to heal," she says.

"I'm extremely excited about the big launch of CNN+ that the whole network has planned and the show that I have planned," she continues. "My goal is to make sure that I spend this time getting better so that show can come out of the gate really the best it can. I'm so excited about being able to build something new."

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