Desiree Anzalone/Instagram; Mondadori/Getty
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Sr.’s only great-granddaughter has died following a battle with stage 4 breast cancer. She was 31.
Desiree S. Anzalone died on Sept. 27 at Smilow Cancer Center in Connecticut, PEOPLE confirms.
Born Sept. 15, 1989 in Norwalk, Connecticut, Desiree was the daughter of Julia Arnaz and Mario Anzalone. Her maternal grandfather, Desi Arnaz Jr., was the son of late I love Lucy stars Desi Sr. and Ball. Desiree was the first great-grandchild of her famous grandparents.
Though her daughter died “peacefully,” Julia, 51, tells PEOPLE that “watching her slip away was just, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. No mother should have to watch that.”
“She was so special. All our children are special, but this little girl was something else,” she adds. “We were [best friends]. We are still,” Julia shares of her only child, who she calls “my mini me.”
“She was so beautiful, just so so beautiful inside and out,” Julia says. “She really, really reminded me a lot of my grandmother, more so than I.”
RELATED: These Stars Faced Breast Cancer and Shared Their Inspiring Stories to Help Others
Desiree was first diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 25. After undergoing chemotherapy, she ultimately decided to get a double mastectomy. Although she was in remission for a period of time, she learned two years ago that her cancer had returned as stage 4 and had spread to her liver, lungs and bones.
“She probably would have been with us for a few more years — it was starting to spread a lot more, and the tumors were getting bigger — but we expected her to stay at least through the holidays. What went wrong is she kept getting fluid around her heart and then they kept doing surgeries and it would come back like two weeks later. And this time, they did the surgery and came back 12 hours later and [said], ‘You’ve got days, if hours.’ So that was really tough,” Julia tells PEOPLE. “I was there before that happened. It was unimaginable.”
Desiree Anzalone/Instagram Desiree Anzalone with her mother, Julia Arnaz
Prior to her death Desiree, a photographer, was receiving hormonal chemotherapy.
She wanted to raise “awareness” for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Julia says, and “to give awareness for young girls her age because this does happen. It’s rare, but it does happen. And Desiree wanted to put awareness out for if you feel anything, just because you’re a certain age doesn’t mean that it can’t happen to somebody.”
RELATED: Remembering the Stars We’ve Lost in 2020
Julia says that while Desiree “was a rare case,” it “does happen.”
“It’s just not talked about a lot. It’s usually people in their late 30s, 40s, 50s — not somebody at this age,” Julia says. “So that was something that she really wanted — to help other women like her. A preventative, really.”
The “first time” she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Desiree found out “right after her birthday, right before breast cancer awareness month. And second time around, stage 4, found out again three years later, right after her birthday, right before breast cancer awareness month. And then now, her final — going into God’s kingdom — right after her birthday, right before breast cancer awareness month,” Julia says. “So it’s just odd how it happened every three years or so.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the mother and daughter weren’t able to spend as much time together in her final days.
“The COVID-19 kept us apart, so I wasn’t able to see her as much as I usually do because she was compromised and I didn’t want her getting sick in any kind of way,” Julia explains. “So I wasn’t able to spend as much time with her as I normally do because of the COVID since March. I mean, I saw her, but not as much; we’d hang out every day practically she was here. Plus, she lived with me for a while.”
In April 2019, Desiree commented about “how proud” her famous grandmother would have been of her as she battled the disease.
Sharing a screenshot of an Epoch Times article that said Desiree was “all grown up and looks just like” Ball, she acknowledged on Instagram that she had “more of the Arnaz genes” versus taking after her grandmother’s looks.
RELATED: Lucille Ball Was Using Poppers to ‘Ease Pains in Her Chest and Heart’: Forensic Pathologist
“Such a nice article wrote about me, and how Lucy and I share the same gumption in regards to my fight with stage 4 breast cancer and how proud she’d be of me,” said Desiree, who addressed mean comments from people who said she didn’t resemble Ball.
“These comments are so ridiculous, and sad, like calm down people. I promise it’s going to be okay. No need to get so angry. Too many shallow human beings out there. I have acknowledged my entire life I do not resemble my great grandma, but rather have more of the Arnaz genes,” she wrote. “So thank you all for stating the obvious 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼.”
Desiree Anzalone/Instagram Desiree Anzalone
She “was a beautiful photographer. She loved the ’60s and ’70s music. She was a model, she was a singer,” Julia says now. “She wrote songs. Very, very talented, smart, smart girl.” She also enjoyed playing piano and and playing guitar with her father.
“Unfortunately, she would have finished college, but the cancer came and she was unable to finish,” Julia adds. “But she would have if this disease didn’t get her.”
Desiree Anzalone/Instagram Desiree Anzalone with her father
Desiree is survived by her father, Mario, and his wife, Nancy; her mother, Julia, and her husband, Halbert Massey; her maternal grandmother, Susan Callahan Howe; grandfather Desi Jr.; paternal grandmother, Carol Anzalone; paternal great-grandmother, Marjorie Broadhurst; stepbrothers Sammy and Joe, and AJ and Nick; and her fiancé and caregiver, Chris Reynolds.
“He did not leave her side, not for one minute,” Julia says of Desiree’s fiancé. “He was there with us when she passed. … He never left her side.”
RELATED: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Daughter Says Her Parents’ 1960 Divorce Was ‘Horrible’
Desiree Anzalone/Instagram Desiree Anzalone
One month before her death, Desiree said she “felt a moment of comfort” amid her pain.
Sharing a quote to Instagram from Antonin Artaud alongside “The Broken Column” painting by Frida Kahlo, Desiree said it was “an art piece she used to express literally and figuratively her life long battle with severe physical pain on her spine from a bus accident that would end up being a life long struggle filled with periods of ups and downs and many failed surgeries.”
“When I read this quote the other day it felt like someone was whispering it to me in my ear—someone that just understood and knew what the pain of my disease has felt like the last month….or someone looking out for me,” wrote Desiree. “Either way, I felt a moment of comfort.”
Her daughter’s death comes eight years after Julia’s late husband was laid to rest.
“I lost my husband, my late husband, in a swimming accident, so I’ve had my endurance with tragedy,” she says. “And now my only child. My late husband, my sweet Tim, which was Desiree’s first step-father, died in a swimming accident in 2012. I’ve had a husband die and now my daughter. I’ve definitely had my tragedies.”
Of what she would tell her daughter, Julia says, “I hope she comes to visit me from time to time. Now she can travel all those places she wanted to see, but just come see me from time to time. She wanted to see so many places and so many things. And she wasn’t able to do that.”