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The singer boarded the next flight back to Los Angeles, where he went right into chemotherapy. Since McMahon's at a rare age for cancer, there was debate over whether he should undergo an adult regimen or the more intense pediatric treatment.

"I've kind of been like, 'Let's play dumb and hopeful,' that's been my approach to this, and I let my parents learn and tell me. ... But as I understand it, because younger people have stronger immune systems and stronger bodies, they can hit them a little bit harder," McMahon explains. "We were lucky to find a hospital that was part of a clinical trial that was upping the adult regimens."

Initially, McMahon took to the chemo surprisingly well.

"My uncle passed away from cancer, and I remember what he looked like when I saw him the week before he passed away, and you could tell he was in a lot of pain," McMahon says. "Carrying that image with me, I prepared myself for such a bad experience that ... the first few days were actually pretty easy. At that point I tried to have fun with it as much as you can have, making jokes about it and whatever. I had my roommate videotape my spinal taps and stuff like that."

In the third week, however, McMahon caught pneumonia, which can be deadly when a body is without white blood cells to fight infection.

"There were three or four days that I have absolutely no recollection of, because my fever was so high and I was on so much morphine," he says. "I remember hallucinating, that's really like the only thing. I'd be in my room and people would be telling me stories or I'd paint all these pictures in my head and I'd point at things with my eyes closed. It was a pretty weird time."

McMahon's cell count eventually recovered and he slowly beat the pneumonia. Later, his doctor jokingly asked if the treatment was aggressive enough.

"We're trying to do this for a cure," the singer reflects. "I mean, the way that I'm happy to live is moving. That's what I do. Touring and recording and I travel a lot, and the only way I'm going to do that is if I don't have cancer."

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late July, McMahon strolls into Fourth Street Recording Studio, a block from the Santa Monica Promenade, in flip-flops, jeans and an Izod shirt. A trucker hat hides his bald head and a piece of clear tape covers a catheter still in his arm. His once-thick frame has been diminished to near-skeletal proportions. The smile across his face, however, tells a different story.

At this studio, where he recorded Everything in Transit and most of Something Corporate's albums, McMahon is in his element. And today he's laying vocals on what is probably the most important song he's ever written. In a few weeks, after another round of chemo, he will undergo a bone-marrow transplant from his sister (who is a rare match), and as a gift for her, he's surprising her with a song.

When he sits down to play "Katie" on the piano, McMahon closes his eyes until the song is over. When he opens them, he's met with a room full of flowing tears. (Click here to watch the performance.)

 "My sister got sick actually last year and I wrote her half a song while she was in the hospital ..." — Andrew McMahon

"My sister got sick actually last year and I wrote her half a song while she was in the hospital and then never finished it," he says. "I always thought about going back to it, but kind of didn't have that extra inspiration. ... I've never really been excellent with words when it comes to face-to-face. I've always kind of hidden behind songs."

"Katie, brave girl/ I know it's only just starting," he sings as the song's first and last line. "Katie, I'm sorry that in my condition/ The sunshine's been missin'/ But Katie, don't believe that it isn't there/ Katie, be happy, this world can be ugly/ But isn't it beautiful?/ I'm not really here/ I'm really not there."

"It's a procedure where you have to be compliant and receptive to one another," McMahon says of the transplant. "It's a really important thing to be in the mindset where you're one, ready to give, and two, ready to receive. It's a big deal to acquire somebody's immune system entirely. So, for me, writing the song and recording it has been a huge part of that process of preparing myself and opening myself up and getting ready to take in the bone marrow or the stem cells or whatever the hell it is."


NEXT: "A bone-marrow transplant, a solo LP and a very strange coincidence ..."
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