On the day Chicago's first lady announced that she had breast cancer in 2002, Linda Borton started her chemotherapy treatments for the same affliction.
Though Borton, a health executive, didn't know Maggie Daley, she knew they were going through a shared traumatic experience, and immediately felt a kinship with this strong, positive woman.
"I knew I certainly was not alone," Borton said, as she reflected on Daley's death Thursday evening from complications of that cancer. "I wanted to write her a note, just to say I'd been diagnosed myself and to try to send her some words of encouragement."
As word of Daley's death spread Friday, the sad news was especially gripping for Chicago-area cancer survivors. In Maggie Daley, many saw a woman who fought the battle with dignity and grace, and who never let her illness overtake her radiant spirit.
Her doctor at Northwestern University said Daley also felt a responsibility to inspire others dealing with breast cancer, which is treatable but considered incurable once it has spread to other organs.
"She felt it was important for other women to realize there are many options," Dr. Steven Rosen said, "and they can survive for a long time with proper treatment."
Only 23 percent of women with metastatic breast cancer survive more than five years, according to the National Cancer Institute. Daley survived with the condition for more than nine years before dying at age 68.
Despite difficult and painful treatments, her doctor said, she remained upbeat in private as well as in public. The only time he saw her crying was when her son, Patrick, went off to war, he said.
Even after she suffered a fractured leg, Rosen said, it was "amazing" that she attended an event the next day because she thought it was so important.
Only after attending daughter Elizabeth "Lally" Daley's wedding on Nov. 17 did Daley stop pushing to combat the disease, he said.
"My sense is that after Lally's wedding, she was at peace," Rosen said. "Up till that point, I think her thoughts were to try everything. After that, she was comfortable with the inevitable outcome of this terrible disease."
To assist other women like herself, Daley gave generously to help open the Maggie Daley Center for Women's Cancer Care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital last year. The center gives patients access to doctors, social workers, psychologists, massage, acupuncture and classes on beauty techniques.
But it was the way Daley managed her private health battle that influenced so many other women experiencing many of the same problems.
Like Daley, Borton found meaning in helping others. She immersed herself in volunteering and support groups and fundraising to find a cure. As she underwent treatment, she maintained a happy disposition.
Borton — now 58 and living in Arlington Heights — recovered but watched as Maggie Daley struggled to overcome the cancer that wouldn't go away.
"She showed, 'I'm not going to let this change me or what's important to me in my life,'" Borton said. "She decided, 'I'm going to continue to live life fully. I'm going to try to make a difference in ways that are important to me.' She left a wonderful legacy."
Other cancer patients drew motivation from Daley's example. Gail Swerdlik, 63, was working as a vocal music teacher in Chicago Public Schools when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995.
Swerdlik would use all her energy making it through each school day. Then she'd get home and crash from exhaustion. But surgery and chemotherapy appeared to eradicate the cancer.
Years later, when she saw Maggie Daley doing the same — making public appearances, supporting her after-school programs and championing the city — Swerdlik felt moved.
"She inspired me because she kept on going," said Swerdlik, now retired. "When you would see her in a wheelchair or with a walker, you knew the disease was progressing. But … what keeps you going is having good things to do for other people."
In 2009, Swerdlik was struck by a recurrence of cancer, forcing the Glenview resident to begin treatment all over again. So when she saw how Maggie Daley's cancer reappeared, she could relate.
"You never know when this thing is going to come back to you. You have to stay optimistic and positive. That was also an image that she gave us."
Shirley Mertz identified with Daley because she too has been beating the odds. Mertz, 65, of Inverness, was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago but thought she beat it. The cancer spread in 2003, but after treatment, she again shows no evidence of disease. Still, she is never considered cured.
Though much of the focus on breast cancer goes to prevention and screening, she said Daley's case shows that more research must be done on treating metastatic cancer, which is what kills 40,000 women a year.
Not only for those with cancer, but for all of us, Mertz said, "Maggie reminds us — everybody has to decide what they want to do with the time they have."
And, noting Daley's influence on her husband's city beautification program, Mertz added, "When I see those pink tulips come up along Michigan Avenue next year, I'll think of her."
One of the biggest names in cancer awareness also spoke of Daley's impact. Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure, said she knew Daley and her husband, former Mayor Richard Daley, very well from various events for the cause, and gave a leadership award to Maggie last year.
"I am today in enormous sadness because the entire family fought so hard," she said. "On behalf of all the survivors and all the people who work so hard every day, we've lost a real general in our army."
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