May 21, 2018 10:00 AM

Jackie Lee doesn’t want to be known as the “cancer guy.”

But what can he do with this piece of his life? How can he run from it when, in just the past two years, his mother has died of cancer and he’s survived two bouts of it himself?

The 26-year-old Nashville singer-songwriter has done the only thing he knows to do: He’s taken this chapter and set it to music, hoping his gifts define him more than a disease.

Jackie Lee
Rob Norris

That is why Lee is now choosing to tell his fans about his cancer battle, not with a tweet or a press release, but with the song that he calls “the most personal of my life.”

The achingly tender “Long Year” describes Lee’s grief over his mother’s death as he faces his own health crisis. The song is conveyed on a music video, debuting exclusively on PEOPLE, that uses home movies to show Lee’s three grueling months of chemotherapy.

“I hope that people know it’s coming from a real place, real emotion,” says Lee, whose breakthrough single, “Getting Over You,” charted in 2017 and has racked up almost 40 million Spotify plays. But even more so, Lee says, he hopes “Long Year” sends a message to anyone else who is suffering that “no matter what you’re going through, you’re going to get through it.”

‘She Was Stolen From Us’

He says those words with assurance now, but that assurance has been hard-earned. Just 20 months ago, Lee was still reeling from the loss of his mother to ovarian cancer when he went to a doctor with  disturbing symptoms. Though tests were inconclusive, there was only one recommended course of treatment: surgical removal of a diseased testicle.

Lee was told cancer was a possibility, but he pushed it out of his mind. “I was like, there’s no way this is cancer,” he tells PEOPLE. “There’s no way. God, there’s no way, right? Of all the things we’ve just been through as a family, there’s no way.”

Alongside his father and younger brother and sister, he had just endured watching his mother lose her three-year fight with cancer. A resident of the east Tennessee town of Maryville, she died, at age 47, on June 4, 2016, in a Nashville hospice.

“It felt like she was stolen from us,” says Lee.

Jackie Lee
Rob Norris

Now intent on sparing his family more pain, he told only his father about the cancer risk and gritted his way through the surgery in December 2016. After a two-week recovery, “I hit the road and didn’t look back,” Lee says. “Physically I felt fine.”

More Life Upheavals

In late January, though, test results on tissue samples confirmed the unthinkable: a diagnosis of stage 2 cancer. Still, the doctor’s optimism allowed Lee to minimize the impact of the news. Because the cancer had been caught so early, no chemotherapy was recommended.

“I was like, well, it’s gone now,” Lee recalls. “Let’s keep moving forward. It’s gone. He got it. We’re good.”

And yet life upheavals kept coming: That spring he parted ways with his record label, Broken Bow, over artistic differences, and he broke up with longtime girlfriend Taylor Dye (one-half of duo Maddie & Tae). Though Dye had seen him through his mother’s death and his surgery, the stresses on the relationship prodded Lee to step away.

“It was really tough for me to do,” he says. “I just felt like it was a thing I needed to do … Needless to say, I just know that all of it was probably really tough on her, as well.”

Jackie Lee during treatment
Jackie Lee

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By the time he arrived at a songwriting session last June — a day after the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death — he was feeling weary and ragged. For four hours, he decompressed with his co-writers, Sean McConnell and Barry Dean.

“Man,” Lee finally sighed, “it’s been a long year.”

McConnell looked up from his guitar. “That’s what we’re gonna write today,” he said.

Writing ‘One of My Favorite Songs’

After years focused on writing potential hits, Lee was finally ready to write a song just for himself. “At that moment,” he says, “I was, like, I couldn’t care less if anyone else in the world hears this song. I need this song.”

“Long Year” is actually a sorrow-soaked love letter addressed to his mom, containing far more questions than answers. “If time’s the only thing that’s gonna heal this pain,” the chorus asks, “then why is God stretching seconds into minutes into days?”

Once finished, Lee knew “I had probably written one of my favorite songs I was ever going to write.” But if he thought the song would also bring him some closure, within weeks a routine medical checkup would prove otherwise. Doctors discovered his cancer had returned, this time in his lymph system.

“I just felt like a pile of rocks had been dropped on my head,” Lee says.

Jackie Lee undergoing chemo
Jackie Lee

At least, the bad news was tempered by his medical team’s assessment: It was a highly curable form of cancer. All of his doctors told him, “if you’re going to have cancer, this is the one you want,” Lee says, chuckling at the gallows humor.

Girding for the battle of his life, Lee rallied his family and close friends to his side. Telling his 15-year-old sister, Gracie, was especially difficult, he says, but “she didn’t shed one tear,” he recalls. “She was like, ‘The doctors say you’re gonna be okay?’ I was like, “Yeah.’ She goes, ‘All right.’ My brother and dad are over there bawling their eyes out, and she’s like a rock.”

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Jackie Lee Before Final Chemotherapy

Lee underwent his first round of chemo last October, and he hoped to keep up his touring schedule during treatment. But the stress of travel and performing landed him quickly in the emergency room with complications. After that, Lee decided to lean into his family’s care, and “I kind of went into hiding.”

The hardest part of chemotherapy was just slowing down, Lee says. Losing his hair and his beard was another miserable rite of passage. “The beard was the first thing to go,” he says. “It broke my heart. I woke up and my beard was all over my pillowcase.”

On his worst days, “I felt as light as a feather, like a breeze could blow me away,” he says, “but I also felt like 16 tons.”

Rediscovering His Purpose

Finally, on Jan. 16, Lee rang the handbell at his Nashville treatment center — a tradition on patients’ last day of chemo — and he was ready to get his life back. But unexpected soul-searching pulled him up short. The health crisis was forcing him to question what he’d been doing with his life since he’d started chasing his Nashville dream at age 17.

“I just had such a pressing feeling on my heart that like, man, what time do I have left?” Lee says. “What can I do today that makes an impact for good? It really bothered me. My purpose when I moved here was to have a number one record, play shows, to make a splash. I couldn’t find the purpose anymore. … It made me feel like, what am I doing here?”

Jackie Lee rings the bell on his last day of chemo
Jackie Lee

In the midst of these questions, Lee and his professional team were discussing what to do with “Long Year.” Lee already had shot a homemade video record of his chemo journey, footage he’d banked not knowing if or how it would be used. Now the suggestion was made to put it in a music video.

“At that moment,” Lee says, “it just all made sense.”

His song, his story, the video images: Suddenly, Lee was remembering why he became an artist in the first place. It wasn’t about No. 1 songs. “I forgot,” Lee says, “that music is healing.”

He reflected on the irony of spending years trying to write songs that “everyone would love.” Now, having finally written a song just for himself, he realized it had the power to connect “more than any other song I’ve ever been a part of.”

Jackie Lee
Rob Norris

Today, Lee’s beard is back, as well as his hair (curly, “which is not okay with me,” he says with a laugh). Doctors have assured him — to his great joy — that he’ll be able to father children one day. He’s comfortable talking about testicular cancer. “Put it like this: I’m not ashamed,” he says, adding he looks forward to raising awareness about the disease.

He’s healthy and wiser and primed to reboot his career — with a renewed sense of purpose for his music.

“I don’t feel like anything’s missing — other than the obvious,” he says with a chuckle. “As far as my life goes, I feel like me. I feel normal. I feel like I can carry on. I’m just super thankful.”

For more information on testicular cancer, visit cancer.org.

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