“She saw me enter this world and I got to see her leave, which is a blessing in a sense. But it was tough — I’m not going to lie — for a young person to see death like that so close.”
There are few things more profound, and heartbreaking, than holding a loved one’s hand as they take their last breath. For Cierra Lee, being by her aunt’s side as she lost her life to cancer gave them one last beautiful moment together.
Cierra and her aunt Joanne were very close. To Cierra, Joanne was her biggest supporter, her godmother, and, in many ways, like a second mother. Theirs was a family full of joy, love, laughter, and dance — they are all dancers in Cierra’s family — and so when her aunt Joanne was diagnosed with cancer, it was a huge blow.
From the moment of Joanne’s diagnosis, Cierra’s family vowed to do everything they could to help, including caring for Joanne in their own home.
“She basically moved in with me, my mom, my sister and my dad,” Cierra says. “We were her primary caregivers for almost a year. It was tough. Because she had to have surgery on her spine, she could barely move around on her own. She’d always been such a high-spirited lady and getting diagnosed just totally changed that. It was a battle of trying to keep her spirits up but also trying to take care of her medically.”
Cancer affects everyone in a family, and as Joanne battled cancer, Cierra’s family struggled to cope with what that cancer meant for them. In some ways, it tore them apart as resentment and anger built towards the disease that was taking Joanne. But, in more important ways, it brought them together. Everyone rallied to support Joanne, be there for her, and fight against cancer.
For a little while, things got better: Joanne went into remission and was able to return home. She was even able to begin teaching dance again. But then, she found a sore on her stomach, and everything fell apart.
“We learned that the cancer had spread everywhere. We were changing her dressings every day and it seemed as though she was doing really well. Then she just crashed and we had to bring her back to the hospital.”
Cierra is grateful she was holding Joanne’s hand as Joanne took her last breath.
“I sang songs to her that she used to sing to me when I was a baby,” Cierra recalls. “I just told her it was OK to let go and that she didn’t have to fight anymore. She opened her eyes, looked at me, closed them, and took her last breath. I was holding her hand the whole time. She saw me enter this world and I got to see her leave, which is a blessing in a sense. But it was tough for a young person to see death like that so close.
These days, what hurts Cierra most is that her aunt is missing those life moments, both big and small, that help define us all. Yet she carries her aunt with her, in her heart, and looks up to her still.
“My greatest vision of her is, she was just so fabulous. She always had her nails done. She always had her hair perfectly done, and her clothes just flowed on her body. She was just so beautiful and so confident. That’s something that I always carry with me and try to instill in myself.”
As an actor, the loss of her aunt Joanne is why Cierra looks for every opportunity to support cancer research. It’s also what led her to join the Cancer Research Society in their video to help raise awareness and support for cancer research in Canada.