Singer Andrew McMahon on Overcoming Cancer

Angela Haupt

The rock star life is supposed to be glitzy and glamorous. It's supposed to be care-free. Cancer? That's not evenly remotely on the mind of someone who's thinking records and sold-out shows and seeing the world.

In 2005, Andrew McMahon was 22 and making music that people were excited about. His band Something Corporate had garnered a cult following, and he was set to release his first album under the moniker Jack's Mannequin.

Then he started losing his voice, so he went to the doctor. They said he had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. And all of a sudden, that rock star life ceased to exist.

McMahon, a singer-songwriter-pianist, received a bone-marrow transplant from his sister. Today, he's eight years in remission and healthy. He's in the midst of a nationwide solo tour and about to release his first solo EP, "The Pop Underground." He also started a nonprofit, the Dear Jack Foundation, which helps support young adults with cancer.

McMahon spoke with U.S. News about overcoming the disease and his advice to others:

Many of your lyrics come across as hopeful or optimistic. Is that because of your experiences with cancer?

There's always been this element of hope I try to align these songs with, because that's how I've always used music, both as a listener and a writer. I tend to sit down at the piano, and those moments where I'm feeling a little bit disconnected or like I'm up against something that's difficult--the song gets me out of that place. And so I think you see this theme of hope and resilience and sort of clinging to the brighter side, if that's possible, because that's how I've always used music personally to heal.

So music played a big role while you were sick?

Just listening was helpful, especially when I was in the hospital. It was always Bob Marley for me. I had a lot of hopeful tunes that I clung to at that time, and just knowing that I had a record I was so proud of, "Everything in Transit"--that was such a point of light on the horizon, this idea that if I got better, I could play it to people. That was such a big deal to me. I think it inspired a lot of my recovery.

Has your sickness affected the music you've written since that time?

In the years that followed, when I actually was out of the woods and in a position to write, in some ways it became a little torturous. It was hard to articulate such a confusing set of emotions--knowing that you're well and that you're not dying anymore. But also, the insecurities that follow a recovery like that are so profound, and your confidence is really shaken. And having a crisis of confidence when you're trying to write music or when you're trying to create art, period, is a really, really difficult thing to weigh. You have to be sort of fearless when you create, you know? It's almost essential to the process. And I was a pretty afraid person for a number of years following my illness, so it was tricky for a while.

Does life ever return to normal after cancer?

No, it doesn't. I think you have a new normal. I mean, does my life feel like it's achieved a sense of balance? Yeah, and it's taken a lot of years to find that, and a lot of help. But somewhere after five or six years I was like, 'Ok, you've gotta figure out a way to be better,' you know? Because my body got better a lot faster than my mind did. And the past couple years especially, it's started to feel like a life. I've had so many experiences post-cancer now that I have memories of life after cancer. But it does take a while, and I wish somebody had told me that. They prepare you for a lot of the things that happen when you're sick, but they don't tell you about the aftermath. When I'm talking to young patients, I always try to say--just know, it gets tricky when you get better, too.

Did cancer slow you down at all?

It didn't for a long time, to be honest. I sort of went immediately into a rebellion, and started living faster and harder than I had beforehand--like in an attempt to reclaim what I thought had been taken from me, or to be young and forget that it happened. A lot of my post-recovery was a gradual slow down to what it is now, which is more balanced.

You've done a lot of good with the Dear Jack Foundation--giving college scholarships to young adults with cancer whose parents have spent all their money paying for treatment, for example. What else is new?

As an organization you're always looking for where you fit and where you can make an impact. And as all these studies continue to pile up, citing the poor survival and lack of improvement in survival rates of young adults with cancer, it started to become pretty evident to me--well, I wasn't just a leukemia patient. I was a young adult leukemia patient, which is a really tricky thing to be. They don't have protocols built for young adults, and that's because they're hard to research and hard to study. When you find out you have leukemia when you're 15 or 22 years old, they ask if you want to be treated as an adult or a child. And you're like, 'Well, why can't you just treat me as a 22 year old person who has cancer?' So now our goal is finding organizations that do things to benefit young adults, like sending kids to camp so they can get away from the hospital and the lifestyle of being a person who's sick.

What's your advice to young adults with cancer?

Just breathe. I think that's what got me through. I'd studied yoga for a lot of years before I got sick, and I had actually kind of gotten away from it in the year before I was actually ill. One of the main things I did was tap back into that, and I was all about meditating and breathing. Everybody talks about fighting against cancer, but I think in a lot of senses you have to almost relax into it and let it happen, and try your best to stay positive. I think for me that was the No. 1 thing that I felt was responsible, in conjunction with treatments: to be able to breathe through it and not be tense and raging against it.