To say that country singer Jackie Lee has had a "Long Year" is an understatement: While still mourning the death of his mother, who died of ovarian cancer in June of 2016, Lee fought two battles of his own with testicular cancer.

Lee's cancer fight began with inconclusive tests, and a doctor's recommendation that he have surgery to remove one of his testicles. He had that surgery in December of 2016, and hoped to put it quickly behind him. However, the following month, test results confirmed his fears: The tissue samples taken from the removed testicle yielded a diagnosis of Stage 2 cancer.

"I was like, there's no way this is cancer," Lee tells People in an exclusive interview. "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."

Fortunately, the cancer had been caught early, and no chemotherapy was necessary, so the country singer moved on with his life. But shortly after writing "Long Year," Lee experience a major setback: During a routine check-up, he learned that his cancer was back, and this time he would need to undergo chemotherapy.

The exhaustion Lee describes in "Long Year" stems from more than just the process of losing his mom and going through his own health scare: Leading up the Spring 2017 writing session during which the song originated, the country singer parted way with both his record label, Broken Bow Records, and his girlfriend, Taylor Dye (of Maddie & Tae.) Lee describes "Long Year," as his most personal song to date, and the first time he has channeled his grief over losing his mother into his music.

"Well, I know you'd have a story / And an answer for me / If you were still here / But you're not here / And it's been a long year," Lee sings in the second verse of the ballad, against a subtle backdrop of piano and strings. That message takes on added meaning in the music video for the song, which documents Lee's real-life journey through his own diagnosis and treatment; in the clip, viewers see the country singer waking up, hamming it up for a bathroom mirror selfie or two and brushing his teeth before heading into the hospital for his chemotherapy appointments.

As time passes in the "Long Year" video, Lee loses his hair, and viewers see his friends shaving their heads in solidarity. At the end of his treatment, on Jan. 16, 2018, Lee rang the bell at his Nashville treatment facility -- a tradition for those completing their course of chemo -- and the video zooms in on a collection of post-it notes tacked to a backdrop: "Your set-back is a set-up for a comeback," the center one reads.

Lee's illness forced him to to take a long look at his own career, and the direction he wanted his life to go: "I just had such a pressing feeling on my heart, like, man, what time do I have left?" he explains. "What can I do today that makes an impact for good?"

"It really bothered me," Lee admits. "My purpose when I moved [to Nashville] was to have a No. 1 record, play shows, make a splash. I couldn't find the purpose anymore ... It made me feel like, what am I doing here?"

While he'd originally recorded the footage documenting his bout with cancer without knowing how or if he'd use it, it dawned on Lee that his personal story had the power to touch the lives of others. "I forgot that music is healing," he says.

Today, Lee is healthy and excited to get back to his career with a renewed -- and slightly shifted -- purpose. He tells People that he hopes to be able to raise awareness for testicular cancer, and is more in touch than ever with the reason why he wanted to become a musician in the first place: to connect with people.

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