Laurie Buffett McGuane is telling PEOPLE about the loss of her beloved older brother
When Jimmy Buffett was diagnosed with skin cancer four years ago, the devastating news was a double blow to his family.
While the singer-songwriter, who passed away on Sept. 1 at age 76, was battling a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma, Laurie Buffett McGuane, his younger sister, was told she also had cancer.
“Jimmy and I were diagnosed with cancer at about the same time,” Laurie, 74, tells PEOPLE. “It was four years ago and Jimmy was actually diagnosed first. When Jimmy found out [I had cancer] he brought all the family and dogs to Montana to be with me.
Laurie – who had pancreatic cancer – says her and her brother’s diagnoses came around the time the COVID pandemic was in full swing, meaning the family had to spend their quality time outside, eating together.
Related: Jimmy Buffett’s last days were filled with laughter, says sister: ‘He brought so much joy’ (exclusive)
Though she had surgery at Duke University and sought treatment in Montana and is now cancer-free, Laurie says she and her late brother, whom she called Bubba, leaned on each other during the rough time.
“Jimmy and I have become closer because of our cancer. We talked before and after our scans,” she recalls. “We shared a club that no one wants to join. I’m stunned that Jimmy didn’t make it.’
Laurie – whom the family affectionately calls Lala – adds that the ‘Margaritaville’ singer was a great inspiration when she underwent treatment, helping her to live as normally as possible.
Related: Jimmy Buffett’s cause of death revealed as Merkel cell skin cancer
“I rode my horse during my treatments and tried to get on with my life the way Jimmy has,” says Laurie, who is married to author Tom McGuane.
Buffett kept his cancer battle private, but had been forced to cancel shows in recent months due to illness — something Laurie says devastated him, because she knew how important his Parrothead fans were to Buffett.
“Jimmy wanted to perform the shows he had to cancel,” she says. “He has brought joy to many. I’m very emotional right now. When Jimmy was born, I felt safe. Even though I have Tom, it will be something very new for me to be without my brother Jimmy.
Laurie and Buffett, along with their sister Lucy (or Lulu), grew up in Alabama. Even as a youngster, Buffett had a nurturing spirit; Laurie remembers the time she broke her leg in eighth grade, and Buffett went to the grocery store specifically to buy her chocolate milk so she would have it when she got home from the hospital.
Laurie can still remember Buffett’s early days as a musician, playing dive bars in New Orleans and holding onto the belief that one day he would make it big.
Related: Jimmy Buffett Didn’t Slow Down When Faced With Cancer — Or Sharks! — Says friend Carl Hiaasen (exclusive)
“Jimmy always had a dream that he pursued to the end,” she says. “He did a lot of things in between, but visited Key West when he was still quite unknown, and never gave up until the public came to listen to him. He was a phenomenal person.”
She adds that she and Lulu were among relatives by Buffett’s side when he died, and that the siblings shared childhood memories with the star in his final days.
After his death, Laurie shared an old childhood photo on Instagram, writing, “Lulu and I were just with Bubba. We talked about our childhood in which only siblings can identify. I told him I’ve known him longer than anyone on this planet. He smiled with those sparkling blue eyes and squeezed my hand.
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