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Maggie Daley Inspired Women Living With Breast Cancer

Chicago's former first lady died of breast cancer one year ago on Thanksgiving day. Her legacy—that you can live with hope—still inspires people who deal with the disease today.

Maggie Daley’s nine-year battle with cancer was a paradox to those who followed her closely. A public figure by nature, the status of her health and treatment was often common knowledge, yet Chicago’s former first lady did not hold herself out as a breast cancer spokeswoman.

While the cancer center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital bears her name, the causes Daley was most passionate about were unrelated, in fact, including children’s artwork and her efforts to help bring the Olympics to Chicago.

A year after she succumbed to breast cancer at age 68, Maggie Daley nonetheless continues to inspire.

To those who suffer from metastatic breast cancer—breast cancer that has metastasized to other parts of the body and become deadly—Daley was a hero not for her evangelism about breast cancer, but for the fact that she carried on with grace and purpose despite living with a terminal diagnosis and at times using a cane or wheelchair to pursue her work.

“It is difficult to live life knowing that you have an incurable disease,” says Shirley Mertz of Inverness, a metastatic breast cancer patient and president-elect of the board of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network (MBCN).

“The longer people live, the more hope it gives to the rest of us with the disease,” she said of Daley, who survived about three times longer than average for those with a similar diagnosis.

“One thing that she did was that she showed people that you can be living with metastatic breast cancer and still be doing things that are very important to you. ... that was a big message to me.” 

— Katherine O'Brien, a blogger who writes about breast cancer

Breast cancer has been recognized and advocated for so loudly in recent years — to make up for lost time when it was unspeakable — that many people mistakenly believe it’s not life-threatening if detected early. That’s true for most people, but Daley’s experience showed that even for well-educated women with access to the best care, breast cancer can kill.

“Overall, people do not understand that metastatic breast cancer in 2012 is incurable,” says Katherine O’Brien, of LaGrange, who writes the breast cancer blog ihatebreastcancer and is on the board of MBCN. “The message is, if you have Stage 4 cancer, you did something wrong. You didn’t get a mammogram. You didn’t eat the right things.”

O’Brien, who lives with the same terminal diagnosis, says it was helpful to have someone like Maggie Daley for inspiration.

“One thing that she did was that she showed people that you can be living with metastatic breast cancer and still be doing things that are very important to you. She really showed us that you could live very fully, and that was a big message to me.”

Dr. William Gradishar, director of the Maggie Daley Center for Women’s Cancer Care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, says it is a privilege to work in a center that was named to honor Maggie Daley’s legacy. The Center was named in response to many donations to the hospital from Daley’s family and friends.

“Often breast cancer awareness month is all about mammograms, and that turns into a very positive message,” said Gradishar. “But patients are also diagnosed with advanced disease for which there is no cure. So we have to focus on advanced treatments for those patients.”

Anne Marie Murphy, executive director of The Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, jokes that her organization encourages women “to get screening early and often—in a Chicago manner.”

She says Daley — who was first lady of Chicago for 22 years, nine of those years with the disease — brought awareness to the issue that went deeper than a pink ribbon campaign.

“We all miss her and she was very inspiring. We’re all working harder to improve outcomes from breast cancer.”

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