It wasn’t just a call for support, but also to make sure Kimber could help her spread the word to their three siblings that they too should be tested for the disease.
“I’ve always been the one who takes care of everybody,” the celebrity chef, 48, tells PEOPLE. “My nieces and nephews are my greatest joy.”
Lee had spent much of the spring planning an elaborate graduation party for her niece – the family’s first college graduate – and making summer travel plans for all her nieces and nephews. She even rescued a baby seal on the beach while on a business trip to Los Angeles.
But after her diagnosis of DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ), the tables were most definitely turned. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Lee’s partner of 10 years, dropped everything and whisked her away to Turks and Caicos for three days.
“Sandy and I were both still reeling from the news,” he tells PEOPLE. “I don’t think I’ve left for more than a couple of nights since becoming governor, but I knew Sandy needed a break and we needed to be in a place that allowed us to focus on her and how we would handle her diagnosis. Sandy loves the sun and the beach, so that’s where I wanted her to be – as safe and relaxed as I could make her.”
Ahead of Lee’s upcoming double mastectomy, sister Kimber has put her own life on hold, leaving her husband and children behind in Seattle to spend a month with Lee while she recovers.
“I want to be here for her when she needs me,” Kimber tells PEOPLE. “She doesn’t need many things. So when she does, I want to be there for her.”
For his part, Cuomo, 57, expects to spend the night in the hospital with Lee after her surgery, scheduled for later this week.
“We are already very close – you go through a lot together in 10 years – and as much as I know Sandy, the way she has handled this has made me really amazed at her strength,” he explains. “I love and respect her even more.”
Cuomo also intends to be present in the operating room. “I plan on being the last person she sees before she goes to sleep and the first one when she [wakes up],” he says.
For more on Lee’s cancer battle, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday