Elizabeth Edwards: A Life Lived on Her Own Terms

Her life and struggle with metastatic breast cancer was a lesson in strength

After a long battle with breast cancer, Elizabeth Edwards passed away on Dec. 7. The North Carolina attorney, poverty advocate and wife of a presidential candidate was surrounded by her family. Many details of her struggle are known, for Edwards, 61, chose to fight in public, where others could draw strength and inspiration from her experience. Up to the last minute she allowed doctors to speak openly about her condition and, in her last gesture as a public person, expressed her gratitude to her Facebook friends and the world at large.

She then retreated into private, spending her final hours with her children Cate, 28, Emma Claire, 12, Jack, 10, and, yes, even her estranged husband, John, 57.

The Early Days
Born Mary Elizabeth Anania on July 3, 1949, in Jacksonville, Fla., Edwards came of age in the turbulence of the 60s. In law school at the University or North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she had also earned her bachelor’s degree, she met her future husband, John. Both launched successful law careers, and Elizabeth gave birth to children Wade and Catherine, known as Cate, now 28 and an attorney in Washington, D.C.

The young family’s world was ripped apart in the spring of 1996 when Wade, 16, was killed in a freak auto accident. Plunged into grief, Edwards retired from law and started the nonprofit Wade Edwards Foundation in Raleigh. In her memoir, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, she writes of visiting her son’s grave and methodically reading aloud all of the works on his junior-year reading list. To honor his talent for writing, the foundation runs a statewide fiction contest and awards $10,000 a year in scholarships and grants to high school English programs.

Edwards set about rebuilding her family in an extraordinary way. At a time when medical technology was less advanced than it is today, she began fertility treatments and gave birth to two more children. Elizabeth was 48 when Emma Claire arrived, and Jack came along when Elizabeth was 50.

The First Sign of Trouble
Never welcome, breast cancer arrived in Edwards’ life at the worst of times. In 2004, her husband was locked in a battle for the White House as Democrat John Kerry’s vice presidential running-mate. Elizabeth was on the campaign trail in Kenosha, Wisc., taking her morning shower when she found a lump in her right breast. Concerned but uncertain what the lump was, Edwards kept the health crisis under wraps for weeks as the campaign rolled on. Finally, on the very morning that John Kerry conceded defeat to George W. Bush, Edwards reported to the hospital for treatment.

After a grueling treatment regimen that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Edwards’ breast cancer went into remission. But it didn’t last. As her husband was making his own bid for the Oval Office three years later, Edwards announced that her cancer was back, this time stage 4 and it had spread to her ribs and hips. Edwards didn’t mince words. The disease, she said, was incurable but treatable. Many viewers thought the televised announcement would end with a John Edwards pulling out of the race; instead, Elizabeth urged him to fight on. She planned to be right by his side.

One Foot in Front of the Other
Edwards continued to explore new opportunities. In 2007 she published Saving Graces, about her life as working mom, a political wife, the devastating loss of her son and finding out she had cancer. It earned a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and she made the list again in 2009 with Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities, a tribute to the lessons we learn and the support we find when faced with adversity.

And by then, she knew a thing or two about adversity. On top of losing her son and coping with incurable cancer, Edwards was forced to cope with her husband’s extramarital affair with campaign worker Rielle Hunter. Things got even more complicated with the 2008 birth of John and Rielle’s daughter, Frances Quinn. Though Andrew Young, another Edwards’ campaign worker, initially claimed paternity, John publicly fessed up at the beginning of 2010 -- and Rielle went on Oprah. The Edwardses officially separated, but never divorced. She said more than once that her children needed a father, even if her many supporters felt she personally had no further need for her husband.

After all the embarrassing revelations, Cate Edwards spoke out telling PEOPLE magazine that her mother’s life had been "savaged" by people she "never invited into it." But she said Elizabeth imparted the wisdom of “never giving up on your passions or purpose no matter what obstacles -- like grief or disease -- get in your way,” as well as more practical advice, like wear solids and choose your kitchen decor carefully.

A Final Farewell
Elizabeth Edwards never fully retired from public life, but in recent months she retreated back to her home in Chapel Hill, making only occasional appearances. Her fans began to suspect that the end was, indeed, near. Edwards released a final statement days before she died: "I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope," she wrote. "These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that."

 

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