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DYING MOM'S GIFT TO ALL DAUGHTERS

Lynn Sage with young daughters Laura and Halee.

Lynn Sage’s story is about mothers and daughters. And breast cancer.

A young wife and mother of two daughters, Sage died of the disease at age 39. Diagnosed in 1979, she succumbed after a grueling five-year battle.

Her daughters, Laura Sage, 41, and Halee Sage, 38, were then pre-teens.

“She’d get very sick, go into the hospital, and come back for awhile,” says Laura Sage, who runs the nine-year-old Lynn Sage Foundation, www.lynnsagefoundation.org.

“Despite her struggle, my sister and I never felt we had anything other than an amazing mother for the short period of time we were able to share with her.”

Soon after Lynn Sage was diagnosed, her friend, Charlene Lieber, was diagnosed too.

Sorority sisters since their University of Wisconsin days, they leaned on each other.

“That really was the ‘olden days,’ when people didn’t talk about breast cancer. They could barely utter the word ‘breast’,” says Lieber, who sits on the executive board of the 27-year-old Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation, www.lynnsage.org.

Why two separate foundations bearing her name? Well, that’s part of the story.

Lieber, then a 36-year-old wife and mother of three, underwent successful treatment.

“We went through mastectomies, breast reconstruction and all the problems inherent with that together,” Lieber recounts. “Lynn had a much more difficult diagnosis.”

Two weeks before her December 1984 death, Lynn Sage called her friend to her bedside.

“ ‘I need for you to promise me our daughters will never have to go through what we went through’ she said,” recounts Lieber, whose only daughter, Stephanie Lieber, was recently elected board chair of the nonprofit set up in 1985 to fulfill that promise.

Lynn Sage’s husband, Yale; family from her side and his, and their closest friends had gotten together to brainstorm ways to honor the young mother’s valiant fight.

Out of that was born the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation, raising funds for research and promoting awareness of a disease that today afflicts one of every eight women.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital became its partner. The nonprofit grew.

Today, it’s raised over $25 million; is housed at the Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Center of Northwestern’s Prentiss Women’s Hospital; and is responsible for turning Chicago’s skyline pink each October. Charlene Lieber was board chair 12 years ago.

“My mom was 36 when diagnosed, the same age I’ll be next week,” her only daughter says. “I’ve been part of this organization since my mother and her friends sat around our dining room table discussing how to honor Lynn’s legacy. There’s eight daughter- mother pairs on our board, most of them connected to this cause from the beginning.”

Also there in the beginning was Lynn Sage’s family. Yale Sage was a former chairman.

But in 2001, the family split from the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation after disagreeing over whether funds raised should support peripherals other than research.

Out of that was born the Lynn Sage Foundation, now solely funding two-year, $100,000 scholarships for promising cancer research scientists at Northwestern University.

Their annual Mother’s Day campaign, where you can send electronic Mother’s Day cards for a donation, is underway on their website, underwritten by Mesirow Financial.

Today, neither organization bearing Lynn Sage’s name will much discuss the split.

“We’re all working toward the same goal,” Laura Sage will only say. “This is a disease where raising funds really makes a difference. If my mother had been diagnosed today, the likelihood of her survival would be multiple times higher.”

It isn’t unusual for the most entrenched nonprofits to experience turmoil, evolution, and even revolution. But this is a story about mothers, daughters, and breast cancer.

Neither of Lynn Sage’s daughters, nor her friend’s daughter, has been afflicted.

And the contributions of the two foundations bearing Lynn Sage’s name, working in the trenches of breast cancer research, may yet fulfill her deathbed plea.