When it came to planning her Nov. 21 wedding to Ben Domenech, Meghan McCain was not in the mood to stress.
“I was not really caught up in the details,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, on stands Friday. “I just wanted everybody to have a good time.”
But when her father, Sen. John McCain, tore his Achilles tendon in the days leading up to the ceremony, the bride had to figure out a new plan for getting down the aisle. Enter her brother, Army guardsman Jimmy, 29.
“He stepped in to walk me down the actual aisle and then my dad gave me away at the very end,” Meghan explains. “I had nerves right before I was going to walk out, but Jimmy was making me laugh the entire time.”
Mom Cindy, 63, who sat in the front row, says her daughter’s joy was palpable. “She was very calm and very positive,” she says. “The day was here and her dad was here, which was the most important thing.”
Tragically, her father’s presence hadn’t necessarily been a given. In July, 81-year-old McCain, the six-term Arizona senator and former Republican presidential nominee, was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, a rare and highly aggressive form of brain cancer that has a median survival rate of 14 months. (Only 5 to 10 percent of patients make it past five years.)
“I felt like a nuclear bomb went off in my life. I was a mess. I was barely functioning,” Meghan says.
Her father launched into an immediate round of radiation and chemotherapy to treat a brain tumor, followed by a second round six weeks later, when doctors found another tumor had appeared in its place.
Four months later, “it’s still a fight, but I’m doing fine,” the senator tells PEOPLE in an exclusive phone interview from the family’s ranch outside Sedona. “I’m getting treatment, and my progress is steady and good. People are saying, ‘I hope you can get over this.’ I believe I will.”
Meghan says her father’s devastating diagnosis made her own life come into focus.
The 33-year-old conservative co-host of The View had been dating Domenech, 35, cofounder of the website The Federalist, for two years, and “we were already talking about getting married, but this made it official,” she says. “There was something about Ben being there for me, at my father’s treatments. I was like, ‘This is love.’ I felt this overwhelming sense of time and my own mortality. We ended up saying, ‘Let’s do this now.’”
“We were originally going to elope before everything happened with my dad, but obviously all these things have taken on new meaning,” Meghan says.
Adds her new husband: “This brought into focus how important it was for Meghan to have her dad see her get married, and to have that happen while he was still fully there and fully able to participate. This was something that she needed.”
The pair set about inviting 117 close friends, family members and former campaign workers for a Thanksgiving-week soirée with a western hunting-lodge theme.
“We pushed everything up,” Meghan says. “My dad is doing really well right now, but it’s a deeply unpredictable cancer. You’re really just living scan to scan. I wanted to make sure that he was — that we were all — there. Why wait?”
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The festivities took place at the McCain family ranch in Cornville, Arizona.
“This beautiful valley has some special meaning because that’s where we spent all our time with our kids growing up,” Senator McCain explains. “The wedding was a celebration of life and also a chance for us to revisit and celebrate the past.”
- For more on Meghan and Ben’s wedding, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
For the reception, “we wanted it to be very Arizona, very Americana,” says Meghan. Wedding planner Jim Bullock of Sedona’s Events by Showstoppers decorated three Nordic kata tents with taxidermy, antlers, animal skins and a vintage American flag so it would look “like if Teddy Roosevelt had a hunting lodge,” Meghan says.
The senator says he teared up watching Meghan’s first dance with Ben as Clay Aiken sang. He had to forgo a planned father-daughter dance because of his ankle, but Meghan says she didn’t mind.
“I’m not disappointed, and I genuinely mean that,” she says. “I felt really blessed and loved, and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.”
Besides, adds her mom Cindy, it might have been for the best: “When John had a good leg, he still couldn’t dance. So it was a good thing!”