From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Writing a memoir was the last thing on Penny Marshall's mind-until something unsettling started to happen. "I'll tell you why I wrote it," she confides in her low Bronx rasp. "When they start giving you lifetime achievement awards, you think you're gonna die!"

She's joking-but not long ago Marshall's health was no laughing matter. Diagnosed in 2009 with both a brain tumor and lung cancer, the director and actor best known for her role in TV's Laverne & Shirley endured a very real brush with death. After surgery, radiation and chemo, Marshall went into remission and today is "fine," she says-though not thrilled about the 60 lbs. she gained during treatment. "Everybody else loses weight, but somehow I got fat!" she quips. She opens up about the cancer and more in My Mother Was Nuts, titled in honor of the woman she credits for her own dry humor. "She called me 'the bad seed.' My mom was funny, sarcastic," says Marshall of her late mother, Marjorie, who ran a dance studio when Marshall and sibs Garry, 77, and Ronny Hallin, 74, were kids. "That's where we got it."

It's served Marshall well. Sitting in her Los Angeles home surrounded by mementos, the mother of one (Tracy Reiner, 48, with first husband Mike Henry) knows she has a lot to be thankful for. In summer 2009, friends "told me I was walking funny; I didn't feel anything." When scans revealed cancer, she tried to laugh it off. "I said, 'Is the car still here? Could you send them for some White Castle?'"

Now cancer-free, she says she'd like to direct-particularly TV. "The movie business is in the toilet," she says. "All they want is vampires and car chases." For now, the grandmother of three is just enjoying peace and quiet. "My life is busy, not with show business, but with life," says Marshall. "I'm lucky."