Shock As Dana Reeve Dies At 44

Dana Reeve, wife of the late actor and activist Christopher Reeve, attends the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's 2nd Annual Gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel on May 14, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California.
Getty Images/Stephen Shugerman
"How could this happen?" For many, that was the inevitable question Tuesday in response to the news that Dana Reeve, the sunny and vibrant widow of Christopher Reeve, had died of lung cancer at the stunningly young age of 44.

Robin Williams said in reaction to Dana Reeve's death, "The brightest light has gone out." Williams and Christopher Reeve were roommates at The Julliard School.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Democrat John Kerry said he'll "never forget the grace and the strength" Reeve showed shortly after the "Superman" actor died in October 2004.

An official at the Christopher Reeve Foundation says the Reeves' 13-year-old son is "in the loving care of family and friends." She says his mother arranged for Will's future to be secure.

Reeve died late Monday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Medical Center of lung cancer, said Sean Dougherty, a spokesman for the foundation. Survivors include a teenage son, Will, and two stepchildren, Matthew and Alexandra.

Will lost two parents in 18 months. His father was left paralyzed after a horse-riding accident, after which his mother largely left her own career as a performer to be near Christopher's side, CBS News correspondent Rich Schlesinger reports. The road for them together ended in 2004 when an infection took Chris Reeve's life.

With all eyes now on her, Dana Reeve became the public face of the Christopher Reeve Foundation devoted to finding new treatments for paralysis — until last August 9, when she stepped into her final role. She announced she had lung cancer.

"I'll tell you it's another journey," Dana Reeve said. "And I'm ready to be finished with the journeys."

"On behalf of the entire board of directors and staff of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, we are extremely saddened by the death of Dana Reeve, whose grace and courage under the most difficult of circumstances was a source of comfort and inspiration to all of us," Kathy Lewis, president and CEO of the foundation, said in a statement.

Although Reeve had announced her cancer diagnosis in August to an outpouring of sympathy and support from admirers around the world, her death seemed sudden. As recently as Jan. 12, she looked healthy and happy as she belted out Carole King's "Now and Forever" at a packed Madison Square Garden during a ceremony honoring hockey star Mark Messier, a friend.

Christopher Reeve, the one-time Hollywood "Superman" turned activist for spinal cord research after a horse-riding accident in 1995, died Oct. 10, 2004.

Dana's mother died shortly afterward. Then in August, Dana announced she had inoperable cancer.

"While it is the more the more unusual scenario that someone who never smoked would develop lung cancer, 10 to 15 percent of the cases do occur in non-smokers," says CBS News health correspondent Emily Senay. "One of the major problems is, by the time it's detected, it's often quite far advanced."

"What I didn't know is that lung cancer is the number-one cancer. We're always looking for breast and ovarian and uterine, and I'm a non-smoker, and I live in the country, so I think 'I'm good,' so I was completely shocked," she told "Entertainment Tonight" interviewer Kathie Lee Gifford. ("ET" is also part of CBS, Inc.)

"Dana enjoyed it (the performance)," ET reporter Jann Carl told CBS Radio News. "She had always been singing and acting, and Dana was very, very eager to get back to work."