By Jill Smolowe
March 27, 2006 12:00 PM

At first Dana Reeve couldn’t bring herself to make the call. But after asking her father, Charles, to break the news to her younger sister that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer last July, Reeve followed up with a call of her own—and a dose of humor. “Dana said, ‘It is a malignant tumor.’ She said, ‘Oy vey!’ It was funny,” recalls Adrienne Morosini-Heilman, “but it wasn’t.”

After the laughter petered out, says Adrienne, 42, “she said that she was glad to know her enemy so she could fight it.” And fight it she did, with grace and more of that defiant humor until shortly before midnight on March 6, when, just 17 months after the death of her husband, Superman actor Christopher Reeve, Dana herself succumbed to lung cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City at the age of 44. To those who knew her, and even those who didn’t, she set a high bar—to maintain a generosity of spirit, and no self-pity, in the face of unimaginable tragedy. “Her compassion, her fortitude are a source of inspiration,” says Brooke Ellison, a quadriplegic who got to know the Reeves when Chris turned her life story into a TV movie. “Her impact is immeasurable.”

Much of the burden Reeve bore was there for the world to see—how, for instance, through the decade of her husband’s rehabilitation after a horseback riding incident left him paralyzed in 1995, Dana stood by his side. But much in her life remained private, including her 71-year-old mother Helen’s death from ovarian cancer just four months after Chris’s, and, after Dana’s own diagnosis, the stroke her father, Charles, 72, suffered on Thanksgiving night at Dana’s house. “She was the nurturer, the peacekeeper,” says Adrienne, who watched in wonder as her sister once again started to go into caretaker mode. “Her natural instinct was to have Dad move into her house because her house is all set up for that. But we staved that off. We all agreed she needed to concentrate on herself.” (Charles has since almost fully recovered.)

Reeve’s proudest achievement—and surely her greatest heartache, as her health deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks—was building a safe and secure future for the couple’s only child, Will, now 13, an eighth grader at a private school near the family’s home in suburban Bedford, N.Y. “I remember her singing to Will before he went to sleep until just a couple of years ago,” says Dana’s older sister Dr. Deborah Huschle, 47. “There was definitely a celebratory quality in their raising of him.” Chris and his wheelchair were a familiar sight at Will’s athletic events. Dana and her son had their own special bond. “They were very tight,” says Huschle. “They had to stick together from a very early point. A lot of her life was being a hockey mom.”

In order to keep Will among the people he’s grown up with, according to those close to her, Reeve arranged for him to live with the family of one of his close Bedford friends; that arrangement won’t change after he starts ninth grade at a new school in the fall. There will be no lack of love in the boy’s life. “There’s an embrace of family around Will,” says Dana’s friend Peter Kiernan. “The first circle is Matthew and Alexandra.” The reference is to Chris’s children by his former partner Gae Exton—Matthew, 26, a London filmmaker, and Alexandra, 22, a law student—both of whom have close relationships with Will.

For a model of resilience, Will need look no farther than his mother. An ambitious woman who gave up an acting and singing career to care for her husband, in 2000 Reeve ventured back to work as a cohost of a daytime talk show on Lifetime. “We all knew she had those extra challenges in her life,” says her cohost, Deborah Roberts. “She handled them happily, with aplomb.” The only time she broke down, Roberts recalls, was when she was preparing to interview a woman who had lost a child. “They showed videotape of the woman at the funeral with her surviving child, who was stroking her face to comfort her. Dana just lost it. She couldn’t stop crying. She explained later that it reminded her of Will caring for her during Chris’s difficult days after the accident.”

After her husband’s death in October 2004, Dana took his place at the helm of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which is dedicated to curing spinal cord injury. She always greeted staff workers by name and pulled up a chair to be eye-to-eye with people in wheelchairs. Yet tragedy struck again when Dana’s mother, Helen, a publishing executive, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died three weeks later from complications post-surgery. “A grinding 10-year fight? Dana was up for that,” says Kiernan. “But a fight that’s over in a couple of weeks? That was a leveling blow.”

Reeve picked herself back up. In February ’05 she attended President Bush’s State of the Union address to show support for embryonic stem-cell research; in April she led a Capitol Hill rally urging stepped-up funding to find a cure for paralysis; in May she launched a children’s book inspired by Chris. That June Reeve took a stab at returning to her showbiz life, doing a critically acclaimed two-night cabaret gig at a nightclub in Manhattan. The future seemed filled with hope. “She was excited,” says her friend Michael Manganiello. “For the first time in 10 years she was going to be able to travel and to go on location.”

But again a cloud appeared on the horizon. Reeve developed a persistent cough that, she told her friend Ken Regan, “I can’t seem to shake.” After her show closed, she went for a chest X-ray that showed a shadow. When a subsequent CAT scan and biopsy confirmed that Reeve, a nonsmoker, had Stage 4 lung cancer, she leveled with her son. “That was an extraordinarily difficult discussion for her,” says Kiernan. “But Will’s a smart boy so there was no point in sugar-coating it.” Afterward, Reeve would proudly tell Regan, “The kid is fantastic. It hasn’t affected his schoolwork. It hasn’t affected his hockey.”

Most likely Will, like Reeve’s friends, believed Dana would be among the slim 2 percent of Stage 4 lung cancer patients who survive five years or longer. Reeve had endured so much already; any other outcome seemed too cruel. “Nothing was supposed to happen to Dana so soon,” says Manganiello. Reeve herself was typically buoyant. “Her cancer didn’t scare her away from living her life,” says cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who was introduced to Reeve by mutual friend Robin Williams and grew close to Will.

Reeve announced her illness in August, saying she felt compelled to speak out because of an imminent tabloid report about her health. Manganiello says something else underlay Reeve’s disclosure: “One of Chris’s biggest messages to other disabled people was, ‘Be in other people’s faces; you’re as good as anyone else.’ Dana was the same way with the cancer. It was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to hide.'”

She fought the disease aggressively, and kept friends abreast of her chemotherapy and radiation treatments with humorous e-mails. “I’ve lost some weight,” Kiernan says one note read, “but I can wear the jeans I used to wear in college and I actually look pretty good in them.” At a Nov. 17 CRF fundraiser, she happily reported, “The tumor is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking,” and after the New Year, sang “Now and Forever” at a Jan. 12 Madison Square Garden ceremony to retire the No. 11 jersey worn by New York Rangers star Mark Messier.

It would be her last public appearance. In late January the tumor suddenly began growing again. Even then, friends say, she didn’t complain. “Dana assured me she was going home,” says CRF president Kathy Lewis, who visited Reeve at the hospital three days before her death. But, says her sister Deborah, a pathologist, “she got very sick very quickly. It took everyone by surprise.”

What remained constant, however, was Dana’s grace and resolve. One day toward the end, close friends and family gathered by her side. “She was still getting radiation, so her throat hurt and it was hard for her to talk,” her sister Adrienne recalls. “So we tried to think of funny stories that we hadn’t already discussed.” Desperate, the group ended up talking about Groundhog Day—and Dana ended up laughing through her pain. “I just thought, through this whole thing, she can barely swallow and yet she kept her sense of humor,” Adrienne says. “She was just a fighter.”