Now, after two major surgeries, the once party-loving reality star, whose cancer journey will be documented on the next season of VH1’s Couple’s Therapy, tells PEOPLE that she’s on the mend, and turning her entire life around.
“Things happen for a reason,” says Raiola, 55, a former bar owner, mother of two and grandmother. “I’d smoked for 40 years. No one could tell me what to do.”
But that all changed when she got the news that she was staring down cancer. “[The tumor] was blocking my airway,” says Raiola. “I quit smoking the day I found out.”
A week after the diagnosis, she underwent surgery on the left side of her throat and then in June, again on the right. “The doctors are saying that I’m a very lucky person,” she says. “I caught this at stage 2.”
But the ordeal continues to take a toll. Having opted for surgery over chemo treatments, Raiola says, “If I had known, I might have picked the treatments. It feels like they cut my head off and put it back on.”
Thanks to her husband of six years, Neil Murphy, 42, she didn’t have to go it alone. “He slept in the hospital on the chair every night,” says Raiola. He’s very supportive.”
Though she admits their relationship these days is just “okay.” Says Raiola, “Cancer puts a lot of pressure on your marriage.”
Now, her new normal involves regular CAT scans and a grueling recuperation process. “I’m learning how to swallow again,” she says. “I have a phobia of choking. I’m just doing the best I can, taking it day by day.”
And she’s giving her life a healthy overhaul.
“It’s hard to just put down the cigarette and never look back. I enjoyed smoking. I miss it so much. But it’s over,” she says. “Now I do the e-cigarette. It helps me, just to hold it in my hand.”
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And after the recent closure of her Drunken Monkey bar, “I’m not living the night lifestyle anymore,” she says. “I’m more settled now. I guess I should be at this age.”
Her excitement these days comes from helping take care of her five grandchildren, aged 4 months to 6 years, and looking forward to another on the way in February. Says Raiola, “That’s all I care about right now. I have to be healthy so I can see them grow up.”
Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn season 6 begins Oct. 7 at 10 p.m. ET on VH1.