Dana Reeve, a non-smoker, dies of lung cancer at 44

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Admirers of Christopher Reeve, the actor who braved paralysis and pain for nine years after a near-fatal riding accident, were plunged into mourning again yesterday following the death of his widow, Dana.

Dana Reeve, who was just 44, had been suffering from lung cancer, a remarkably unlucky turn of events for a non-smoker. Having poured heart and soul into caring for her husband, who died in October 2004, she then took over the presidency of his foundation, which helps victims of severe spinal-cord injuries come to terms with their greatly reduced quality of life and recurring medical problems.

After she was diagnosed with cancer last summer, she vowed to take inspiration from the courage demonstrated by her late husband and expressed hope that she could beat back the disease. It was not to be, however, and she died at a branch of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering cancer hospital in Los Angeles on Monday night.

The chief executive of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, Kathy Lewis, issued a statement mourning a woman "whose grace and courage under the most difficult of circumstances was a source of comfort and inspiration to all of us".

Her death leaves the Reeves' 13-year-old son, Will, an orphan. Mrs Reeve also had two adult stepchildren, Matthew and Alexandra.

Christopher Reeve, best known for playing Superman on the big screen, was a popular actor during the heyday of his career who earned a whole new cluster of admirers after he fell off his horse in 1995 and used his personal misfortune to try to educate and benefit others.

Dana Reeve, née Morosini, started out as a singer and actress who met Reeve during a summer theatre season in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After his accident, she devoted herself fully to his care and the causes he espoused. "She was a woman with an incredible heart who really put herself out there to help people with disabilities and especially those who are caregivers - something she knew a lot about," Ms Lewis told the Associated Press.

Four months ago, at a fundraising gala for the foundation, Mrs Reevesaid she was responding well to treatment and that her tumour was shrinking. "I'm beating the odds and defying every statistic the doctors can throw at me," she said. "My prognosis looks better all the time." Asked how she kept her spirits up, Mrs Reeve said she "had a great model". She added: "I was married to a man who never gave up."

A year ago, she won a mother of the year award from the American Cancer Society. A society vice-president, Michael Thun, said she "has shown strength and courage in the face of tremendous adversity".